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Gregory Heyworth: How I'm discovering the secrets of ancient texts

October 31, 2015

Gregory Heyworth is a textual scientist; he and his lab work on new ways to read ancient manuscripts and maps using spectral imaging technology. In this fascinating talk, watch as Heyworth shines a light on lost history, deciphering texts that haven't been read in thousands of years. How could these lost classics rewrite what we know about the past?

Gregory Heyworth - Textual scientist
Gregory Heyworth uses spectral imaging technology to uncover lost classics that could rewrite history. Full bio

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On January 26, 2013,
00:12
a band of al-Qaeda militants
entered the ancient city of Timbuktu
00:15
on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.
00:18
There, they set fire to a medieval library
of 30,000 manuscripts
00:21
written in Arabic
and several African languages
00:26
and ranging in subject from astronomy
to geography, history to medicine,
00:28
including one book which records
00:34
perhaps the first treatment
for male erectile dysfunction.
00:36
Unknown in the West,
00:41
this was the collected wisdom
of an entire continent,
00:42
the voice of Africa at a time when Africa
was thought not to have a voice at all.
00:46
The mayor of Bamako,
who witnessed the event,
00:51
called the burning of the manuscripts
00:53
"a crime against world cultural heritage."
00:55
And he was right --
00:58
or he would have been, if it weren't
for the fact that he was also lying.
01:00
In fact, just before,
01:04
African scholars had collected
a random assortment of old books
01:07
and left them out
for the terrorists to burn.
01:11
Today, the collection
lies hidden in Bamako,
01:13
the capital of Mali,
01:16
moldering in the high humidity.
01:18
What was rescued by ruse
01:20
is now once again in jeopardy,
01:22
this time by climate.
01:23
But Africa, and the far-flung
corners of the world,
01:26
are not the only places,
or even the main places
01:28
in which manuscripts that could change
the history of world culture
01:30
are in jeopardy.
01:35
Several years ago, I conducted
a survey of European research libraries
01:37
and discovered that,
at the barest minimum,
01:42
there are 60,000 manuscripts
01:44
pre-1500
01:48
that are illegible
because of water damage,
01:49
fading, mold and chemical reagents.
01:52
The real number is likely double that,
01:56
and that doesn't even count
01:59
Renaissance manuscripts
and modern manuscripts
02:01
and cultural heritage
objects such as maps.
02:04
What if there were a technology
02:09
that could recover
these lost and unknown works?
02:12
Imagine worldwide
how a trove of hundreds of thousands
02:17
of previously unknown texts
02:22
could radically transform
our knowledge of the past.
02:25
Imagine what unknown classics
we would discover
02:30
which would rewrite the canons
of literature, history,
02:34
philosophy, music --
02:37
or, more provocatively, that could
rewrite our cultural identities,
02:39
building new bridges
between people and culture.
02:43
These are the questions
that transformed me
02:47
from a medieval scholar,
a reader of texts,
02:49
into a textual scientist.
02:52
What an unsatisfying word "reader" is.
02:55
For me, it conjures up
images of passivity,
02:58
of someone sitting idly in an armchair
03:00
waiting for knowledge to come to him
03:03
in a neat little parcel.
03:05
How much better to be
a participant in the past,
03:07
an adventurer in an undiscovered country,
03:10
searching for the hidden text.
03:13
As an academic, I was a mere reader.
03:17
I read and taught the same classics
03:20
that people had been reading
and teaching for hundreds of years --
03:22
Virgil, Ovid, Chaucer, Petrarch --
03:25
and with every scholarly article
that I published
03:29
I added to human knowledge
in ever-diminishing slivers of insight.
03:31
What I wanted to be
03:36
was an archaeologist of the past,
03:38
a discoverer of literature,
03:40
an Indiana Jones without the whip --
03:41
or, actually, with the whip.
03:43
(Laughter)
03:45
And I wanted it not just for myself
but I wanted it for my students as well.
03:46
And so six years ago,
I changed the direction of my career.
03:50
At the time, I was working
on "The Chess of Love,"
03:54
the last important long poem
of the European Middle Ages
03:57
never to have been edited.
04:00
And it wasn't edited because
it existed in only one manuscript
04:01
which was so badly damaged
during the firebombing of Dresden
04:04
in World War II
04:08
that generations of scholars
had pronounced it lost.
04:09
For five years, I had been working
with an ultraviolet lamp
04:13
trying to recover traces of the writing
04:16
and I'd gone about as far
as technology at the time
04:18
could actually take me.
04:21
And so I did what many people do.
04:22
I went online,
04:24
and there I learned about
04:26
how multispectral imaging had been used
to recover two lost treatises
04:28
of the famed Greek
mathematician Archimedes
04:32
from a 13th-century palimpsest.
04:35
A palimpsest is a manuscript
which has been erased and overwritten.
04:37
And so, out of the blue,
04:42
I decided to write
to the lead imaging scientist
04:43
on the Archimedes palimpsest project,
04:46
Professor Roger Easton,
04:48
with a plan and a plea.
04:50
And to my surprise,
he actually wrote back.
04:51
With his help, I was able
to win a grant from the US government
04:55
to build a transportable,
multispectral imaging lab,
04:59
And with this lab, I transformed
what was a charred and faded mess
05:03
into a new medieval classic.
05:08
So how does multispectral
imaging actually work?
05:11
Well, the idea
behind multispectral imaging
05:13
is something that anyone who is familiar
with infrared night vision goggles
05:16
will immediately appreciate:
05:20
that what we can see
in the visible spectrum of light
05:22
is only a tiny fraction
of what's actually there.
05:24
The same is true with invisible writing.
05:27
Our system uses 12 wavelengths of light
05:31
between the ultraviolet and the infrared,
05:35
and these are shown down
onto the manuscript from above
05:37
from banks of LEDs,
05:40
and another multispectral light source
05:42
which comes up through
the individual leaves of the manuscript.
05:44
Up to 35 images per sequence
per leaf are imaged this way
05:47
using a high-powered digital camera
equipped with a lens
05:51
which is made out of quartz.
05:54
There are about five
of these in the world.
05:56
And once we capture these images,
05:58
we feed them through
statistical algorithms
06:00
to further enhance and clarify them,
06:02
using software which was originally
designed for satellite images
06:05
and used by people
like geospatial scientists
06:08
and the CIA.
06:11
The results can be spectacular.
06:13
You may already have heard
of what's been done
06:16
for the Dead Sea Scrolls,
06:18
which are slowly gelatinizing.
06:19
Using infrared, we've been able
to read even the darkest corners
06:22
of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
06:25
You may not be aware, however,
06:28
of other Biblical texts
that are in jeopardy.
06:30
Here, for example,
is a leaf from a manuscript
06:32
that we imaged,
06:36
which is perhaps the most valuable
Christian Bible in the world.
06:38
The Codex Vercellensis is the oldest
translation of the Gospels into Latin,
06:42
and it dates from the first half
of the fourth century.
06:48
This is the closest we can come
06:52
to the Bible at the time
of the foundation of Christendom
06:54
under Emperor Constantine,
06:58
and at the time also
of the Council of Nicaea,
07:00
when the basic creed of Christianity
was being agreed upon.
07:02
This manuscript, unfortunately,
has been very badly damaged,
07:06
and it's damaged because for centuries
07:09
it had been used and handled
07:11
in swearing in ceremonies in the church.
07:14
In fact, that purple splotch
that you see in the upper left hand corner
07:17
is Aspergillus, which is a fungus
07:21
which originates in the unwashed hands
07:26
of a person with tuberculosis.
07:29
Our imaging has enabled me
to make the first transcription
07:32
of this manuscript in 250 years.
07:35
Having a lab that can travel
to collections where it's needed, however,
07:39
is only part of the solution.
07:43
The technology is expensive and very rare,
07:45
and the imaging and image
processing skills are esoteric.
07:48
That means that mounting recoveries
07:51
is beyond the reach of most researchers
and all but the wealthiest institutions.
07:53
That's why I founded the Lazarus Project,
07:58
a not-for-profit initiative
08:00
to bring multispectral imaging
to individual researchers
08:02
and smaller institutions
at little or no cost whatsoever.
08:06
Over the past five years,
08:11
our team of imaging scientists,
scholars and students
08:13
has travelled to seven different countries
08:16
and have recovered some of the world's
most valuable damaged manuscripts,
08:19
included the Vercelli Book,
which is the oldest book of English,
08:22
the Black Book of Carmarthen,
the oldest book of Welsh,
08:26
and some of the most valuable
earliest Gospels
08:28
located in what is now
the former Soviet Georgia.
08:32
So, spectral imaging
can recover lost texts.
08:36
More subtly, though, it can recover
a second story behind every object,
08:40
the story of how, when
and by whom a text was created,
08:45
and, sometimes, what the author
was thinking at the time he wrote.
08:50
Take, for example, a draft
of the Declaration of Independence
08:54
written in Thomas Jefferson's own hand,
08:57
which some colleagues of mine
imaged a few years ago
08:59
at the Library of Congress.
09:02
Curators had noticed
that one word throughout
09:04
had been scratched out and overwritten.
09:06
The word overwritten was "citizens."
09:09
Perhaps you can guess
what the word underneath was.
09:12
"Subjects."
09:15
There, ladies and gentlemen,
is American democracy
09:17
evolving under the hand
of Thomas Jefferson.
09:20
Or consider the 1491 Martellus Map,
09:23
which we imaged
at Yale's Beinecke Library.
09:27
This was the map
that Columbus likely consulted
09:29
before he traveled to the New World
09:31
and which gave him his idea
of what Asia looked like
09:33
and where Japan was located.
09:36
The problem with this map
is that its inks and pigments
09:39
had so degraded over time
09:42
that this large, nearly seven-foot map,
09:44
made the world look like a giant desert.
09:46
Until now, we had very little idea,
detailed idea, that is,
09:49
of what Columbus knew of the world
09:52
and how world cultures were represented.
09:54
The main legend of the map
was entirely illegible under normal light.
09:57
Ultraviolet did very little for it.
10:01
Multispectral gave us everything.
10:03
In Asia, we learned of monsters
with ears so long
10:06
that they could cover
the creature's entire body.
10:10
In Africa, about a snake
who could cause the ground to smoke.
10:12
Like starlight, which can convey images
10:18
of the way the Universe
looked in the distant past,
10:20
so multispectral light can take us back
to the first stuttering moments
10:23
of an object's creation.
10:27
Through this lens, we witness
the mistakes, the changes of mind,
10:29
the naïvetés, the uncensored thoughts,
10:33
the imperfections of the human imagination
10:36
that allow these hallowed objects
and their authors
10:38
to become more real,
10:41
that make history closer to us.
10:42
What about the future?
10:46
There's so much of the past,
10:48
and so few people
with the skills to rescue it
10:50
before these objects disappear forever.
10:53
That's why I have begun to teach
this new hybrid discipline
10:58
that I call "textual science."
11:01
Textual science is a marriage
11:03
of the traditional skills
of a literary scholar --
11:05
the ability to read old languages
and old handwriting,
11:07
the knowledge of how texts are made
11:10
in order to be able
to place and date them --
11:11
with new techniques like imaging science,
11:14
the chemistry of inks and pigments,
11:16
computer-aided optical
character recognition.
11:19
Last year, a student in my class,
11:22
a freshman,
11:25
with a background in Latin and Greek,
11:26
was image-processing a palimpsest
11:28
that we had photographed
at a famous library in Rome.
11:30
As he worked, tiny Greek writing
began to appear from behind the text.
11:34
Everyone gathered around,
11:40
and he read a line from a lost work
11:41
of the Greek comic dramatist Menander.
11:44
This was the first time
in well over a thousand years
11:47
that those words
had been pronounced aloud.
11:50
In that moment, he became a scholar.
11:53
Ladies and gentlemen,
that is the future of the past.
11:57
Thank you very much.
12:00
(Applause)
12:01

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Gregory Heyworth - Textual scientist
Gregory Heyworth uses spectral imaging technology to uncover lost classics that could rewrite history.

Why you should listen

Gregory Heyworth is associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi. He is a medievalist and founder of the discipline of textual science. 

Professor Heyworth directs the Lazarus Project, a not-for-profit initiative to restore damaged and illegible cultural heritage objects, especially manuscripts and maps, using spectral imaging technology. He has helped recover numerous important objects including the Vercelli Book and the 1491 Martellus Map. 

Currently he is working on a project to recover the manuscript fragments of the lost Cathedral Library of Chartres, France, bombed in WWII.

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