Friday, October 10, 2014

Modern Technology and Ancient Manuscripts

Caitlin Rajala FP’15 and Julia Spector ’16 were in the British Library in London this past summer, holding in their hands manuscripts worth more than an original van Gogh painting. They were written in Aramaic between the fifth and twelfth centuries, and the students’ job was to select the items most suited to a groundbreaking project they’ve been working on for more than a year.

They’re applying new technology to ancient manuscripts, using software to compare stylistic details in individual scribes’ handwriting. The software program measures elements of a scribe’s handwriting style—such as how rounded letters are and how tight or stretched out a phrase is—then compares the measurements against those in other documents scanned into a database.

The results can uncover relationships between historical documents and yield clues about when and where they were written. Analyzing script at this level of detail wasn’t possible until recently. A Five College faculty-student research team developed and refined a handwriting analysis tool that is unlocking the manuscripts’ secrets.

Rajala and Spector are an integral part of this team led by MHC’s Michael Penn, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Religion, and Smith College computer science professor Nicholas Howe.

Penn says the students have been involved in every single aspect of the project, which is supported by MHC, Smith, and the Mellon Foundation. “They are getting a type of mentorship that graduate students might get, but in reality even they don’t often get,” he says. “And the students constantly push the project in directions I never could have foreseen and make discoveries I would not have. It’s been fantastic to collaborate with them at that level.”


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