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."

Publications & Lectures

PLOS | ONE

From Invisibility to Readability: Recovering the Ink of Herculaneum

Library of Congress

The Digital Restoration Initiative: Reading the Invisible Library

Brent Seales talks at the Library of Congress

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