In late December 2015, a package arrived in Heidelberg, Germany, for Franklin & Marshall Professor of Classics Shawn O’Bryhim, on sabbatical in the old university town. The package had been sent by his collaborator, F&M Professor of Physics Ken Krebs.
After two years in the making, O’Bryhim was about to test a device that would help researchers like himself read ancient parchment that has hidden or underwritten text not easily discernable to the eye.
In the Middle Ages, parchment made from sheepskin and cowhide became expensive. The monks responsible for copying texts then decided to produce palimpsests – Greek for “scraped again” – by scraping off as much ink as possible from a parchment and writing over it.
“This faded ink, which is very difficult to read, preserves ancient texts that have been lost,” O’Bryhim said. “It was a time-consuming process to scrape an animal skin and cure it and they thought, ‘Why should we do that? We can just use an old one.’”
The monks wanted to inscribe prayer books and hymnals, but paper-making at the time was even less affordable. Instead, they had reams of cheap pagan documents from antiquity. “You couldn’t erase the parchment completely so you erased the best you could, rotated the page 90 degrees, and wrote across it,” Krebs said.
On that cold December day in Germany, O’Bryhim carried the device secured in a small suitcase to the library of Ruprecht-Karls University of Heidelberg and used the “Manuscript Illuminator” on a small selection of parchments to find writing that had never been seen before.
“When I went to the library, they brought out various manuscripts and one of them had a place where the text had obviously been scraped off and written over. A researcher had examined it and said, ‘Well, I think this is what was behind it,’” O’Bryhim said. “I was able to use the device to see what was actually there and confirm his hypothesis.”
The device is a compact, ultraviolet light table with a camera attachment. UV light has been used for years to read palimpsests, but a large, expensive apparatus was required. The F&M professors’ portable tool cost less than $1,000, mostly for a lithium battery, an independent power source.
O’Bryhim conceived the idea of a portable UV device about 15 years ago when he was unable to use a camera with filters to capture text of palimpsests in an Italian library. About two years ago, a chance meeting with Krebs brought the classics and physics professors together.
After research, which included two students who have since graduated, and tests to determine the optimal UV wavelength, the two professors had F&M electronics engineer Steven Spadafore build the device.
“The revolution in this is using ultraviolet light diodes because they can be driven by batteries, they can be very intense, and they can be tuned,” Krebs said. “It doesn’t do any damage to the documents.”
A patent is pending, but how much impact the “Illuminator” will have on researching ancient text is not clear.
“It will be a convenience for researchers,” O’Bryhim said. “If they didn’t have something like this, they would have to take their manuscripts somewhere that has a very expensive apparatus.”
The “Illuminator” may not send researchers scurrying to the world’s libraries to search medieval manuscripts for ancient text underwriting, but it no longer requires removing documents from libraries, Krebs said. A digital camera can be fastened above the table for photographing text.
“It also has visible light so you can take a picture of the manuscript the way it looks normally and then flip the switch and it goes to UV,” Krebs said. “If you can take the instrument to the document, that’s better than taking the documents to the instrument.”