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Students discover hidden text behind 15th century manuscript with imaging system they built

A group of students at Rochester Institute of Technology have uncovered hidden text behind a 15th century manuscript using an imaging system they developed as freshmen.

The manuscript was part of the college’s art collection, but after using ultraviolet-fluorescence imaging, it was revealed to be a palimpsest – manuscript on parchment with multiple layers of writing.

The class was asked to build a UV, multispectral imaging system and were required that the machine read hidden text on documents. 

They borrowed several parchments from the Carry Collection and when put under UV light, dark French cursive appeared under the visible text.

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A group of students at Rochester Institute of Technology have uncovered hidden text on a 15th century manuscript using an imaging system they developed as freshmen

A group of students at Rochester Institute of Technology have uncovered hidden text on a 15th century manuscript using an imaging system they developed as freshmen

It was expensive to make parchment when the manuscript was written, so leaves were sometimes erased and re-used for new documentation.

The erased text is invisible to the naked eye, but using other areas of the light spectrum can illuminate the chemical signature of the initial writing and removes the visible text.

Zoë LaLena, a second-year imaging science student who worked on the project, said: ‘This was amazing because this document has been in the Cary Collection for about a decade now and no one noticed.

‘And because it’s also from the Ege Collection, in which there’s 30 other known pages from this book, it’s really fascinating that the 29 other pages we know the location of have the potential to also be palimpsests.’

The manuscript was part of the college’s art collection, but after using ultraviolet-fluorescence imaging, it was revealed to be a palimpsest - manuscript on parchment with multiple layers of writing

The manuscript was part of the college’s art collection, but after using ultraviolet-fluorescence imaging, it was revealed to be a palimpsest – manuscript on parchment with multiple layers of writing

The class was asked to build a UV, multispectral imaging system and were required that the machine read hidden text on documents

The class was asked to build a UV, multispectral imaging system and were required that the machine read hidden text on documents

The Otto Ege Collection is a series of manuscripts gathered by Otto F. Ege, who was  teacher and well-known book breaker.  

Ege made leaf collections out of medieval manuscripts that were damaged or incomplete and sold them or distributed them to libraries and special collections across North America, including to the Cary Collection 

The students put the palimpsest underneath the UV imaging system and capture the hidden writing with a camera that was transferred to a computer where they could increase the readability.

The manuscript is set to be examined by historians who will determine the text and its meaning.

Steven Galbraith, curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, said the discovery is exciting because similar leaves have been studied extensively by scholars across the country, but never tested with UV light or fully imaged.

The students put the palimpsest underneath the UV imaging system and capture the hidden writing with a camera that was transferred to a computer where they could increase the readability

“The students have supplied incredibly important information about at least two of our manuscript leaves here in the collection and in a sense have discovered two texts that we didn’t know were in the collection,” said Galbraith.

“Now we have to figure out what those texts are and that’s the power of spectral imaging in cultural institutions.’

‘To fully understand our own collections, we need to know the depth of our collections, and imaging science helps reveal all of that to us.’

The students have been selected to share their results at the 2021 International Congress on Medieval Studies and also plan to present the project at next year’s Imagine RIT: Creativity and Innovation Festival.

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