The work of Professor Brent Seales and his Digital Restoration Team were featured recently on the PBS science show NOVA and on the streaming network, Curiosity Stream. The hour-long NOVA episode aired November 6th. Curiosity Stream is a subscription-based, science-focused streaming network from the founder of Discovery Channel. Two clips from the excellent show can be viewed here and here, but users can sign up for a free two week trial to view the entire 20-minute Breakthrough segment, called “Herculaneum Scrolls: Unravelling History.”

The team’s recent scans of Herculaneum scrolls at Diamond Light Source, a synchrotron located just outside of Oxford, England, garnered worldwide attention, including an appearance on BBC Radio’s Inside Science. (See all of the international press coverage here.) A TV production team from the U.K. also followed Seales and his team to Diamond to record the scan session and create this “teaser” video for a documentary about Seales and his work. The final production will appear on networks around the world, including NatGeo in the U.K. and SBS in Australia.

Using light 10 billion times brighter than the sun, Professor Brent Seales and his team recently captured images of authentic Herculaneum material at Diamond Light Source, a high-energy physics facility in Oxford, England.  Thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, the team was able to purchase the amount of beam time needed to scan — at unprecedented spatial resolution — two intact scrolls and four fragments belonging to the Institut de France in Paris.

“This scan session promises to be a key moment in our quest for a reliable pathway to reading the invisible library,” said Seales. “The brightness and speed of the Diamond beam, and its ability to handle massive data sets, are crucial. We are using the Diamond facility to acquire scans of complete scrolls and also open fragments, with the hope that the open fragments will form a reference library — or training set — that can inform our machine learning software approach to visualizing carbon ink,” Seales continued. “If things work as we expect, the scans and the machine learning will open up the chance to see the ink very clearly for the first time.”

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Brent Seales - $2 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The University of Kentucky is poised to become a world-class leader in “unwrapping” cultural artifacts. Thanks, in large part, to a $2 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Professor Brent Seales finally has the materials access, funding support and technical approach needed to solve the 2,000-year-old mystery of the Herculaneum papyri.

The prestigious Mellon grant will provide the resources the team needs to virtually unwrap and digitally restore the scrolls. It will also support the electronic compilation and dissemination of the entire Herculaneum collection, which is currently spread across four different institutions: the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the British Library, the Institut de France and the Biblioteca Nazoinale di Napoli.

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A new study by Dr. Seales and his team refutes claims that carbon ink is “invisible” in micro-CT scanning and conclusively shows that machine learning can be used to elicit the stubborn text. Their groundbreaking work, featured in the science e-journal PLOS One (From Invisibility to Readability: Recovering the Ink of Herculaneum) demonstrates how characteristics other than density differences, which is the traditional imaging factor in x-ray, can be capitalized upon in micro-CT to reveal carbon ink writing. The team developed a 3D Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) that identifies the unique data pattern generated by the scanner when ink is present on the surface of papyrus, versus when the papyrus is blank. In the study, the team successfully applied the CNN to both proxy materials and the most well-known and sought-after of carbon-inked texts, Herculaneum papyri.  The team also developed a modification of the tool that can generate color renditions from the scans of the inked papyrus, thus providing a realistic facsimile of the original instead of just a traditional black and white x-ray image.

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Machine Learning

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 15, 2019)  Thanks to work spearheaded by University of Kentucky College of Engineering faculty member W. Brent Seales, UK is poised to become the world-class leader in digitally “unwrapping” and restoring one-of-a-kind cultural artifacts, such as ancient manuscripts.

Seales and his students have worked for more than two decades to noninvasively image and unfurl all types of fragile texts, such as “Beowulf,” the Dead Sea Scrolls and more. Seales, professor and chair of UK’s Department of Computer Science, has earned a reputation as “the man who can read the unreadable.”

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Professor Brent Seales has received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for his groundbreaking project, “Reading the Invisible Library: Rescuing the Hidden Texts of Herculaneum.” The Digital Humanities Advancement Grant of $325,000 will allow Seales and his dedicated team to continue development of computerized techniques to recover writings from the Herculaneum library, a collection of undecipherable papyrus scrolls were carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE (Common Era). More specifically, funding from the NEH is being used to develop a machine learning approach that will enable researchers to see hidden writing that is otherwise very difficult to visualize in X-ray based images. The funds support the construction of a large-scale neural network, including student and staff time for software development.

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Brent Seales - Reading the Invisible Library.
Brent Seales (center), professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at UK, is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for his groundbreaking project, "Reading the Invisible Library."

In the Press

DRI In the press

2019

Le Monde

Les Papyrus D’Herculanum, Des Énigmes Fragiles

NOVA

From ashes to AI: How technology puts a new lens on ancient texts

The Guardian

Ancient scrolls charred by Vesuvius could be read once again

CNN

Scientists hope to digitally unravel scrolls charred by Vesuvius with light 10 billion times brighter than the sun

Agence France Presse (AFP)

Report from Diamond Light Source

France 24

Reuters

Report from Diamond Light Source

BBC South Today

Report from Diamond Light Source

WDRB Louisville

Technology at UK helping decipher ancient scrolls

Spectrum News 1

Reading the Unreadable: UK Researchers Digitally Restoring Lost Scrolls

The Washington Post

How do you read ancient scrolls too brittle to unfurl? An American scientist may have an answer.

The Telegraph

Herculaneum Scrolls to be sent to dentist for ‘virtual unwrapping’ to decipher texts from early days of Western civilization

2018

Mental Floss

Hidden Library: How Science Is Virtually Unwrapping the Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum

National Geographic

How Modern Technology Is Bringing Ancient Writings to Light

Smithsonian Magazine

Buried by the Ash of Vesuvius, These Scrolls Are Being Read for the First Time in Millennia

60 MinutesCBS News

2017

The New York Times

A Fragile Biblical Text Gets a Virtual Read

Discovery Magazine

History Unwrapped

2016

The New York Times

Modern Technology Unwraps Secrets of a Damaged Biblical Scroll

USA Today

Charred manuscript is one of oldest known copies of Torah ever found

Wall Street Journal

Researchers Reconstruct Early Version of Old Testament Text from Burned Scroll

Christianity Today

Biblical Archaeology’s Top Ten Discoveries of 2015

The New Yorker

The Invisible Library

Publications

PLOS | ONE

From Invisibility to Readability: Recovering the Ink of Herculaneum

Library of Congress

The Digital Restoration Initiative: Reading the Invisible Library

Art & Archaeology 2nd International Conference in Jerusalem, Israel, 2016

Quantitative Distortion Analysis of Flattening Applied to the Scroll from En-Gedi

Science Advances

From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi

Textus

An Early Leviticus Scroll from En-Gedi: Preliminary Publication

Lecture, Mellon Sawyer Seminar at Iowa State University, January 20, 2017

From Damage to Discovery via Virtual Unwrapping

Featured Lecture, New Technologies for Museum Collections Seminar at the Gilcrease Museum, September 24, 2016

Digital Unwrapping: Homer, Herculaneum, and the Scroll from Ein Gedi

The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies – University of Pennsylvania Library

The St. Chad Gospels: Diachronic Manuscript Registration and Visualization

Lectures

Featured Lecture Video for Buried by Vesuvius at the Getty Villa, Los Angeles, CA, October 19, 2019

Reading the Herculaneum Papyri: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
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Plenary Lecture at the NEH’s National Council on the Humanities, Washington, DC, July 12, 2019

Brent Seales at National Endowement for the Humanities
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Digital Restoration Initiative: Reading the Invisible Library, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, February 14, 2018

Brent Seales talks at the Library of Congress
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