Second-year college students from New York have found a page from an old book from the 1500s with hidden writing on it; the hidden writing was found using a special camera that they had built.
Surprisingly, finding hidden writing on very old documents isn’t all that unusual. In fact, there’s even a special name for documents like this: a palimpsest.
Long ago, writing was done on parchment – thin, dried animal skins specially prepared for writing. But parchment wasn’t easy to make and it wasn’t cheap.
For this reason, it became common to scrape the old writing off of a parchment and then use the parchment again for another piece of writing. That’s what creates a palimpsest.
The writing that was scraped off of the parchment can’t be seen directly, but scientists have learned ways to use special lighting to reveal it.
But it’s unusual for young college students to discover palimpsests.
Last year, first-year students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) took part in a class that brought together many students from different areas to tackle a project as a group. The project they were given was to build a special camera system that could take pictures using different kinds of light.
But just as the students were finishing up their project, the coronavirus hit and the students could no longer work on the project in person. Instead, they broke into smaller groups to try to finish parts of the project remotely.
Over the summer, a few of the students got special permission to continue working on the imaging camera, and they managed to finish it.
When they were done, they borrowed several old parchments from the collection at the school’s Cary Graphic Arts Collection. When they put one of the pages under their camera system with ultraviolet (UV) light, the hidden writing was suddenly revealed.
Under the UV light, cursive writing in French could easily be seen behind the fancy writing and decorations normally visible on the page.
Zoe LaLena, one of the students involved in the project said, “This was amazing because this document has been in the Cary Collection for about a decade now and no one noticed.”
The students are even more excited because even though the parchment is no longer part of a book, the students know where 29 other pages from the same book are. They hope that these, too, will have hidden writing.
Now the students are working with others to locate the other parchments and to find out what the hidden writing on all of them means.