The text in a bookbinding piece of 16th century parchment is revealed by imaging techniques. The parchment which was used to bind the book was already centuries old, and the manuscript on it remained unreadable for nearly 500 years. But now imaging techniques have allowed scientists to decipher the text which seems to be containing part of the Roman law code. Also, that explains why the binder used that particular piece, since at the time the Roman laws were no longer in use.

The discovery is important since it can help scientists decipher the text on other parchments utilised for similar purposes. After all, in the period from the 15th to the 18th century bookbinders would recycle medieval parchments using them as bindings for new, printed books.

The book in question is a copy of “Works and Days” by the the Greek poet Hesiod, printed in 1537. It was bought in 1870 by Northwestern and is now the only copy with its original slotted parchment binding. When researchers examined the parchment they realised that the binder had tried to wash or scrap the text, but still, two columns were saved along with comments in the margins.

Researchers tried various methods, from hyperspectral imaging technique to X-ray fluorescence imaging, but the text remained illegible.

In the end, the book was sent to the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) in Ithaca, New York, where the text was fully imaged, along with the marginal comments, thanks to the use of powerful X-rays. Richard Kieckhefer, professor of religion and history at Northwestern analysed the text and said it was a Roman law code from the 6th century with notes on the church’s canon law. This was a common practice for university students studying Roman law as a basis for canon law.

However, since not all similar cases can be sent for CHESS analysis, Northwestern researchers worked with two electrical engineering and computer science professors to find another way to image parchments. They used a combination of two techniques, visible hyperspectral imaging and Xray fluorescence and obtained the best results reading what was inside the cover of the book.

For a very long time scholars, although interested in them, could not access the texts in those pieces of parchments used for bookbinding. Now, the new discovery with the use of computational imaging and signal processing advances provide access to a new field for study.

The study was published online in the August issue of the journal Analytica Chimica Acta.