Bringing humanity’s treasures to a worldwide audience

Bringing humanity’s treasures to a worldwide audience

University of Kentucky computer scientist Brent Seales wants to use 21st century technology to preserve the treasured relics of humanity and make them accessible to a wider audience of scholars.

Seales, professor and chair of the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and former director of UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments (Vis Center), uses state-of-the-art scanning techniques to produce high-resolution digital facsimiles of ancient artifacts. His work in applying computational techniques to problems in the humanities has brought him into contact with world-class museums and scholars on three continents. His early work included a project with the British Library working with digital images of the Beowulf manuscript. Subsequent projects included 3-D scanning of petroglyphs in Puerto Rico and the development of the use of micro-CT for digitization of damaged antiquities such as carbonized papyrus scrolls.

In 2007 Seales and his research team were allowed access to the Venetus A, the oldest known complete copy of the Iliad located in Venice, Italy.

“One of the goals of digitizing that manuscript was to make it globally accessible via the Internet, but we also wanted to combine the 3-D shape, the photography and the ultraviolet photography into one representation that could be manipulated and enjoyed by scholars,” Seales said.

Later research trips to England, Spain and Taiwan have offered the opportunity to digitize additional antiquities. In many cases, the documents that Seales deals with are so fragile that digital scanning offers the best hope of preserving their contents for future generations of scholars, before they are lost to the withering effects of time.

Some imaging techniques, for example using x-rays or ultraviolet light, can reveal content that cannot be discerned with the naked eye. Under funding from the National Science Foundation Seales’ EDUCE project (Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration) sought to create readable images of texts such as papyrus scrolls, without opening them, using minimally invasive scanning and virtual unwrapping.

“It’s important for the oldest things, for the most damaged things, for the things that tell us information that we haven’t seen before,” Seales said. “It’s so important to capture that.”