Image courtesy University of Kentucky’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments

Cutting-edge technology isn’t always focused on the future. Sometimes you need forward-thinking technology to reach backwards and learn about the past. One case in point is the work being done at EduceLab at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments.

Brent Seales, PhD, has been teaching computer science at UK since 1991, but the focus of his research for the last 20 years has been on digitally restoring cultural and historical artifacts.

An interest in digitization

Years ago, Dr. Seales became involved with the digitization of library materials when it became an important research focus for the National Science Foundation (NSF). He got a grant from the NSF to build a digital library to convert books and other written materials to digital files.

During one of his projects–working with a research group at the British Library on the Cotton manuscripts, which had been heavily damaged by fire and flood in 1731—Dr. Seales discovered that it wasn’t possible to photograph everything realistically. The pages were warped and buckled so there were parts that could be captured in a 2D picture in order to be read.

Christy Chapman, MS, Research and Partnership Manager at the Center said, “Dr. Seales started working on a way not just to digitize the object and the damage, but to use computers to reverse the damage and somehow return it to its pre-damaged state so that it could be read the way it was meant to be read.” 

The En-Gedi Scrolls

In 2015, Dr. Seales became interested in the En-Gedi Scrolls, which were discovered by an Israeli archeologist while he was excavating the ruins of an 8th century BC synagogue. He pulled a 3-inch cigar-shaped, blackened stick from the ground. In 2015, Dr. Seales and his team used microcomputer tomography and CAT scans to digitally unfolded the scroll and revealed it to be the book of Leviticus– the oldest Hebrew Bible ever found after the Dead Sea scrolls.

“Previous attempts by others to read the scroll kind of hit a brick wall. The scrolls were carbonized and really brittle. They tried over the centuries to actually open them up physically. They used all different kinds of techniques. They cut some of them. Then they tried to use mercury. They tried to use gas to open them up, and nothing really worked,” Chapman said.

Dr. Seales was able to virtually unwrap the scroll using his technology which led to the discovery of the text. (You can watch a fascinating description of the process in this video.)

Because of his innovations, Dr. Seales has become renowned by collectors and curators across the globe.

Initial support and funding for the facility is being provided by the Kentucky Office of the New Economy, the UK College of Engineering, the UK Department of Computer Science, and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

You can learn more about the research going on with the Digital Restoration Initiative here.