Public invited to demonstration of high tech kit used to uncover mysteries of Bodleian Libraries' books, manuscripts and art

22 June 2016

Bodleian Libraries researchers will be demonstrating how they use high-tech scientific techniques to uncover hidden text and images on the Libraries' treasures at a special event taking place as part of Oxfordshire Science Festival.

Members of the public are invited to drop into the Weston Library on Saturday, 25 June for this Uncover the hidden event.

Image of Bodleian Libraries researchers using hyperspectral imaging equipmentVisitors will be able to see hyperspectral imaging and Raman spectroscopy in action and to learn how they are being used in cutting-edge research. These technologies help to investigate some of the mysteries found on the pages of the Bodleian's precious books, manuscripts, maps and paintings. Both technologies are non-destructive and non-contact, making them ideal for analysing ancient and fragile items.

Hyperspectral imaging, once a niche technique used by astrophysicists to study the colour of stars, is used by Bodleian researchers to reveal text and images that have been worn away over the centuries or have been deliberately erased, amended or obscured. The hyperspectral scanner can also identify unknown substances and pigments with a high degree of accuracy.

'I've been amazed as the power of hyperspectral imaging since we acquired our scanner in 2014,' said David Howell, Head of Heritage Science at the Bodleian. Image of a demon figure in a manuscript revealed using hyperspectral imaging'We're delighted to be bringing our equipment out from behind closed doors to show the public.'

Howell will demonstrate the use of hyperspectral imaging in the Weston Library's Blackwell Hall. Visitors will be also able to see a digital display of his recent work, which includes revealing a hidden devil on a centuries-old Armenian gospel, clarifying the text of the famous Bakhshali manuscript, which includes the first use of zero, revealing a hidden picture of St Matthew on a gospel owned by Wadham College, and contributing to new discoveries about the Bodleian's early Mexican codices which are currently on display in the Weston Library.

One of Howell's collaborators, Kate Nicholson, a photochemist from the University of Northumbria, will be demonstrating Raman spectroscopy, which uses specially-designed lasers to determine the chemical nature of pigments for example indigo, vermilion and cochenille.

The two techniques being demonstrated are just some of the many approaches used by the Bodleian's Heritage Science team, which was established in 2012 to provide a better scientific and analytical understanding of the Libraries' collections. Heritage science, sometimes known as conservation research, is the application of scientific techniques and technologies to the study of cultural heritage, which can include books, artefacts, artworks and buildings.

Hyperspectral imaging technology image'Our research at the Bodleian helps conservators to understand exactly what an item is made of or how it was made, which helps inform how objects are conserved and treated,' Howell said. 'We also work with curators and academics to fill gaps in our knowledge about our collections, for example our research on the 'painting by numbers' techniques used by botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer.'

Later this month Howell will be hosting a one-day symposium on hyperspectral imaging to bring together scholars and students in the relatively new fields of heritage science and imaging science. Speakers will include leading practitioners such as Fenella France from the Library of Congress in Washington DC and John Delaney from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The event takes place on 30 June is sponsored by SEAHA (The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology). The symposium is open to anyone interested in imaging science, conservation, pigment and scientific analysis and the registration deadline is Friday 24 June.

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