Below the Surface of Artifacts

This morning’s lecturer presented our class with some real cutting-edge mechanisms to find details of artifacts that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Combining certain light wavelengths that are both visible and invisible to the naked eye, faded words and images of an artifact can be seen. A neater use of this technology, known as hyperspectral imaging (HSI), is to uncover writings on parchment that had been mostly scraped off to allow the paper to be reused. (There’s an interesting parallel to how items on a hard drive can be “deleted” but still findable with the right expertise.) The lecturer discussed how this technology can help us to recover knowledge relating to the discovery of America that has effectively been lost. The use of this technology has led to the restoration of map features, reconstructions of wood etchings (as an early printing press), and the recovery of writings and drawings “under” other writings. Unfortunately, I do not recall how the lecturer’s work was evaluated for effectiveness.

I enjoyed the lecturer’s public speaking presence. She was engaging to listen to, related to her audience (i.e. a combination of college students across disciplines), and kept her audience informed of where she was in her progression of points. Though small, I particularly enjoyed the lecturer’s “agenda” that she displayed at the beginning of the speech. I was able to get mentally prepared for what is to come, which reduced the burden of her needing elaborate transitions to go from talking about HSI to discussing how Europeans reacted to the discovery of America. A recommendation is for her to better synthesize her research with the history lesson, although I understand both pieces were exhibited today in order to demo her expertise and pedagogy.

Additionally (and not to be coy), I really enjoyed learning a part of history that was truly new to me. I found that the Books of Secrets to be the most interesting part of the presentation, because there are many publications today that are of similar use. We as a society have moved past making gold from rotten eggs and manure, but the idea of “home remedies” is still popular in many parts of the United States and in many places around the world. (Consider whiskey cough syrup.)

A question I am left with is whether the technology of seeing below the surface of artifacts is expected to add significantly to the discipline of history. More specifically, how is this technology different from taking a metal detector to the beach searching for lost coins? Is it a technology considered to be good for filling in the blanks of history or something larger? Answers aside, I am interested in learning more about how HSI will recover knowledge formerly inaccessible to mankind.