Apocalypto – reading the unreadable

I click <<save>> on my computer today and I wonder if that file will be readable 10 years from now, or 20, or 50.  Incredibly, and thankfully, a wealth of historical information has been preserved for hundreds of years, written on parchment; a treated animal skin based material. They didn’t worry about hard disk crashes then, but over the years, the wrong environmental conditions can turn a nicely rolled parchment scroll into a solid lump of gelatine; forever entombing its secrets within.

Perhaps it was just a shopping list, but what if this degradation has caused the loss of some valuable fragment of historical information? There is hope!  Much of the ink used contained enough iron to make it detectable on sensitive X-ray equipment.  With computed tomography of sufficient resolution and contrast sensitivity, we can build up a complete 3-dimensional map of the location of this ink and then use advanced software algorithms to work out how the parchment was rolled or folded.

The final step is then to virtually unroll it and reveal (Greek: αποκαλύπτω/apocalypto) the hidden secrets within.  It’s not an easy task, which is why this team has come together, with the best technology money can buy, to crack the problem.
Of course, if this valuable scroll has already suffered from years of neglect in the wrong environment, the last thing we want to do is cause any more damage. So another vital part of this project is to investigate the effects of X-ray exposure on parchment. So far, it looks pretty safe and unless the parchment is wet, we have been unable to detect any measureable damage caused by X-rays.

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