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AFRL scientist recovers ancient texts

For more than 20 years, Dr. Keith Knox, Air Force Research Laboratory scientist (second from left), has traveled the world to recover erased texts of ancient manuscripts. His activities recently took him to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert. 

Photo by Mark Schrope. Used with permission.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Keith Knox, Air Force Research Laboratory scientist (second from left), has traveled the world to recover erased texts of ancient manuscripts. His activities recently took him to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert. Photo by Mark Schrope. Used with permission.

Dr. Keith Knox, Air Force Research Laboratory scientist, has been working with teams to reveal ancient text. The work involves separating the two writings and enhancing the erased writing, making it easier for scholars to read. Here the ordinary visible text appears in black, while the more ancient erased text, written in Greek, appears in red. 
  
Photo: Copyright St. Catherine’s Monastery, used with permission.

Dr. Keith Knox, Air Force Research Laboratory scientist, has been working with teams to reveal ancient text. The work involves separating the two writings and enhancing the erased writing, making it easier for scholars to read. Here the ordinary visible text appears in black, while the more ancient erased text, written in Greek, appears in red. Photo: Copyright St. Catherine’s Monastery, used with permission.

KIRTLAND AFB, N.M. -- "What Lies Beneath" is a thriller movie made in 2000, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford as a well-off couple who experience a haunting that uncovers secrets about their past.

The Air Force Research Laboratory's Dr. Keith Knox has been looking into 'what lies beneath' for more than 20 years.

"I started working with old manuscripts in 1992 with colleagues at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, where I was a scientist at the Xerox Research Center," Knox said. "I realized that techniques that we had developed to enhance images in photocopiers would work to recover writing on ancient documents."

Knox, the technical advisor at the AFRL's Maui Optical and Supercomputing site, is an expert in multispectral imaging - a technique used for observing the sky. Spectral imaging, which can extract information the human eye is unable to see, was originally developed for space-based imaging. Multispectral imaging can also be used to uncover erased texts of ancient manuscripts.

When his AFRL work allows, Knox travels with independent scientific groups to locations across the globe in recovering writing on ancient documents. He has been involved in some remarkable projects.

He was part of the team of researchers that read the erased texts of "The Archimedes Palimpsest" - the oldest surviving copy of works by the greatest mathematical genius of antiquity.

"As a scientist, the excitement of working on old manuscripts is a chance to discover something that has been hidden for centuries and otherwise lost to the world," said Knox.

More recently, he was able to reveal the writing on Dr. David Livingstone's African diary, which was completed in 1871.

"Although the diary was brought back to England after Livingstone's death, the writing had faded and no one could read it. When his handwriting appeared on my computer screen, it was the first time anyone could read what he had written 140 years ago. To make a discovery of that magnitude is a thrill beyond measure," Knox said.

Lately, his work has focused on manuscripts written on parchment - the cleaned and dried skin of a sheep or goat.

"Since it was very costly to create a new piece of parchment, books that were no longer needed were disassembled, the ink was cleaned off the parchment, and new text was written on it. Such an overwritten document is called a "palimpsest." Centuries later, the erased ink begins to darken and it becomes visible as faint stains on the parchment. As scientists, our job is to illuminate and capture digital images of the parchment leaves. Later, we manipulate the digital images to enhance the erased writing, while simultaneously suppressing the overwritten text. We then provide these enhanced images to the scholars who read and interpret the erased writing," he said.

In 2009 and again in 2012, Knox's travels took him to St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Desert, which was built in the sixth century at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The goal of the five-year effort is to recover the erased writing on more than 100 recycled manuscripts in the monastery's library.

Knox is immersed in the work he loves as a scientist at AFRL and in traveling the world to recover ancient texts.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with humanities scholars on rare and precious manuscripts, applying state-of-the-art technologies to recover ancient knowledge that otherwise would be lost forever," said Knox.