Over the past 6 months or so the Digital Production Center has been collaborating with Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing (DC3) and the Conservation Services Department to investigate multispectral imaging capabilities for the Library. Multispectral imaging (MSI) is a mode of image capture that uses a series of narrow band lights of specific frequencies along with a series of filters to illuminate an object. Highly tailored hardware and software are used in a controlled environment to capture artifacts with the goal of revealing information not seen by the human eye. This type of capture system in the Library would benefit many departments and researchers alike. Our primary focus for this collaboration are the needs of the Papyri community, Conservation Services along with additional capacity for the Digital Production Center.
Josh Sosin of DC3 was already in contact with Mike Toth of R. B. Toth Associates, a company that is at the leading edge of MSI for Cultural Heritage and research communities, on a joint effort between DC3, Conservation Services and the Duke Eye Center to use Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) to hopefully reveal hidden layers of mummy masks made of papyri. The DPC has a long standing relationship with Digital Transitions, a reseller of the Phase One digital back, which happens to be the same digital back used in the Toth MSI system. And the Conservation lab was already involved in the OCT collaboration so it was only natural to invite R. B. Toth Associates to the Library to show us their MSI system.
After observing the OCT work done at the Eye Center we made our way to the Library to setup the MSI system. Bill Christens-Barry of R. B. Toth Associates walked me through some very high-level physics related to MSI, we setup the system and got ready to capture selected material which included Ashkar-Gilson manuscripts, various papyri and other material that might benefit from MSI. By the time we started capturing images we had a full house. Crammed into the room were members of DC3, DPC, Conservation, Digital Transitions and Toth Associates all of whom had a stake in this collaboration. After long hours of sitting in the dark (necessary for MSI image capture) we emerged from the room blurry eyed and full of hope that something previously unseen would be revealed.
The resulting captures are as ‘stack’ or ‘block’ of monochromatic images captured using different wavelengths of light and ultraviolet and infrared filters. Using software developed by Bill Christens-Barry to process and manipulate the images will reveal information if it is there by combining, removing or enhancing images in the stack. One of the first items we processed was Ashkar-GilsonMS14 Deuteronomy 4.2-4.23 seen below. This really blew us away.
This item went from nearly unreadable to almost entirely readable! Bill assured me that he had only done minimal processing and that he should be able to uncover more of the text in the darker areas with some fine tuning. The text of this manuscript was revealed primarily through the use of the IR filter and was not necessarily the direct product of exposing the manuscript to individual bands of light but the result is no less spectacular. Because the capture process is so time consuming and time was limited no other Ashkar-Gilson manuscript was digitized at this time.
We digitized the image on the left in 2010 and ever since then, when asked, ‘What is the most exciting thing you have digitized’ I often answer, “The Ashkar-Gilson manuscripts. Manuscripts from ca. 7th to 8th Century C.E. Some of them still have fur on the back and a number of them are unreadable… but you can feel the history.” Now my admiration for these manuscripts is renewed and maybe Josh can tell me what it says.
It is our hope that we can bring this technology to Duke University so we can explore our material in greater depth and reveal information that has not been seen for a very, very long time.
Beth Doyle, Head of Conservation Services, wrote a blog post for Preservation Underground about her experience with MSI. Check it out!
Also, check out this article from the New & Observer.