Digital life for ancient text

Scientists are using imaging technologies to digitally restore a 700-year-old palm-leaf manuscript containing the essence of Hindu philosophy.

The project, led by P.R. Mukund and Roger Easton, professors at Rochester Institute of Technology, will digitally preserve the original Hindu writings known as the Sarvamoola granthas, dating from the 14th century. Easton previously imaged the Dead Sea Scrolls and is currently working on the Archimedes Palimpsest.

The document is difficult to handle and to read, the result of centuries of inappropriate storage techniques, botched preservation efforts and degradation due to improper handling. Time and a misguided application of oil have aged the palm leaves dark brown, obscuring the Sanskrit writings.

The team spent six days imaging the document on location at a monastery-like mathas in Udupi, India in June. They used a scientific digital camera and an infrared filter to enhance the contrast between the ink and the palm leaf.

Images of each palm leaf, back and front, were captured in eight to 10 sections, processed and digitally stitched together. The scientists ran the 7,900 resulting images through various image-processing algorithms using Adobe Photoshop and custom software.

The processed images of the Sarvamoola granthas will be stored in a variety of media, including electronically, in published books and on silicon wafers for long-term preservation. The process, called aluminium metallisation, transfers an image to a wafer by creating a negative of the image and depositing metal on the silicon surface.