Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Unlocking letters and unrolling scrolls – virtually!

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: “Locked” for 300 years: Virtual unfolding has now revealed this letter’s secrets. Practice of intricately folding letters to secure them is known as "letterlocking" (Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica).
In 1697, a man named Jacques Sennacque wrote a letter to his cousin, a French merchant named Pierre Le Pers, requesting a certified death certificate for another man named Daniel Le Pers (presumably also a relation). Sennacque sealed the letter with an intricate folding method known as "letterlocking," a type of physical cryptography, to safeguard the contents from prying eyes. That letter was never delivered or opened. More than 300 years later, researchers have virtually "unlocked" the letter to reveal its contents for the first time, right down to the watermark in the shape of a bird. They described their results in a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications.


There are hundreds of such locked letters. The point of interest for PaleoJudaica is that the technology for "virtually unlocking" them has already been used on ancient scrolls.
So [researcher Jana] Dambrogio et al. turned to virtual "unwrapping" techniques, which are becoming increasing popular for the study of fragile historical documents. For instance, 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. The so-called En-Gedi scroll was recovered from the ark of an ancient synagogue destroyed by fire around 600 CE.
For the story of the Ein Gedi Leviticus scroll, see here and many links. For the virtual unfolding of a Coptic Elephantine papyrus, see here. And for the discovery of writing on apparently blank Dead Sea Scroll fragments at the Rylands Library, Manchester, using Multispectral Imaging, see here and here. These technological developments are providing many unforseen opportunities "to X-ray history."

HT reader Joe Slater.

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