College undergrads find hidden text on medieval manuscript via UV imaging

Rochester Institute of Technology students discovered lost text on 15th-century manuscript leaves using an imaging system they developed as freshmen.

A page from a 15th-century medieval manuscript turns out to contain hidden text that is only visible under UV light. The discovery is due to the efforts of a team of undergraduate students at Rochester Institute of Technology, who built their own multispectral imaging system as part of a class project and managed to complete it despite the ongoing pandemic.

It’s not unprecedented to uncover previously hidden texts on ancient manuscripts. In 2016, an international team of scientists developed a method for “virtually unrolling” a badly damaged ancient scroll found on the western shore of the Dead Sea, revealing the first few verses from the Book of Leviticus. Similarly, in 2019, we reported that German scientists used a combination of cutting-edge physics techniques to virtually “unfold” an ancient Egyptian papyrus, part of an extensive collection housed in the Berlin Egyptian Museum. Their analysis revealed that a seemingly blank patch on the papyrus actually contained characters written in what had become “invisible ink” after centuries of exposure to light.

And earlier this year, we reported on a new analysis using multispectral imaging showing that four Dead Sea Scroll fragments housed at the University of Manchester in the UK—previously presumed to be blank—had readable text written in carbon-based ink, along with parts of characters and ruled lines. One fragment in particular showed the remnants of four lines of text, consisting of about 15 letters. Only one word, Shabbat (Sabbath), was readable, but based on the analysis, Joan Taylor of King’s College London thought the text related to the passages in Ezekiel 46:1-3.

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