Research Article: From invisibility to readability: Recovering the ink of Herculaneum

Date Published: May 8, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Clifford Seth Parker, Stephen Parsons, Jack Bandy, Christy Chapman, Frederik Coppens, William Brent Seales, Paweł Pławiak.


The noninvasive digital restoration of ancient texts written in carbon black ink and hidden inside artifacts has proven elusive, even with advanced imaging techniques like x-ray-based micro-computed tomography (micro-CT). This paper identifies a crucial mistaken assumption: that micro-CT data fails to capture any information representing the presence of carbon ink. Instead, we show new experiments indicating a subtle but detectable signature from carbon ink in micro-CT. We demonstrate a new computational approach that captures, enhances, and makes visible the characteristic signature created by carbon ink in micro-CT. This previously “unseen” evidence of carbon inks, which can now successfully be made visible, is a discovery that can lead directly to the noninvasive digital recovery of the lost texts of Herculaneum.

Partial Text

While written language emerged just 5,000 years ago [1], the vast majority of manuscripts available for study and analysis are only about half this age, with many primary editions having been lost to the turbulence of the ancient era or the deleterious passage of time. Damage and decay, dual realities of the physical world, are constantly at work to rob us of humanity’s written record. Today, our only glimpse of many of our most important texts is through secondary witnesses, painstakingly preserved by medieval scholars, but now teetering on the verge of oblivion.

Until recently, very few people cared what the written word might look like in a micro-CT scan. As a result, the properties associated with the way ink appears in micro-CT are not only complex and obscure, but also understudied. In the absence of a more complete investigation into these properties, a convention formed around the use of a simple ink detection technique that revealed some inks in micro-CT scans. By filtering the micro-CT volume for relative density differences between the ink and the writing substrate—those places where the ink and the substrate have dramatically differing chemistries—the ink could be revealed. This idea is quite reasonable and has been used to great effect. For certain inks, such as the iron gall used in many medieval texts, the ink attenuates the x-rays more than the animal skin or papyrus it covers, and thus it appears to be much “brighter” in micro-CT images. By filtering the micro-CT volume for bright values, these inks become immediately visible during visual analysis of the scan output.

We design our two carbon ink detection methods using the observations of the previous section as the foundation: 1) there are morphological and intensity-based differences between inked and uninked writing surfaces and 2) given a small enough voxel size, these differences are captured in micro-CT volumes. Our ink detection methods inspect regions-of-interest (subvolumes) along writing surfaces and use these characteristic differences to determine whether or not carbon ink is present. We do not limit these methods to detecting only one type of contrast, but instead consider all of the differences between the inked and uninked writing surfaces.

Our work lays an important foundation for the future of digital restoration of damaged texts. We have demonstrated that regular micro-CT can be used to detect carbon inks and that these inks can be revealed for scholarship via a computational approach. This result overturns a prevalent mischaracterization of the power of micro-CT and opens up a pathway for the recovery of texts previously thought inaccessible. Moreover, we have shown that the same computational method used to detect the ink can be used to enhance the visualization of the material, making scholarship easier than ever before. The ability to enhance data across modalities is powerful and not limited to micro-CT volumes and full color photography. In particular, we anticipate that the integration of spectral image data into this pipeline will render this tool even more powerful for scholarship.

While the text within damaged and fragile documents can be stubbornly resistant to any and all efforts to reveal its contents, our work has taken another successful step towards the complete recovery of the world’s most precious manuscripts. Our results overturn the belief that micro-CT offers no solution for carbon ink manuscripts, thereby opening up a new category of texts for noninvasive, digital restoration. Within this category are the Herculaneum scrolls. With our machine learning pipeline’s proven ability to elicit the carbon ink signal and render it in a photorealistic way, the scholarly community may indeed be one step closer to witnessing “a bursting forth of genius from the dust” [34] of Herculaneum.




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