Over 600 years ago, someone intricately folded, sealed, and mailed a letter that was never delivered. Now, scientists have digitally “displayed” this and other similarly blocked letters found in a 17th-century trunk in The Hague, using X-rays.
For centuries before the invention of sealed envelopes, sensitive correspondence was protected from prying eyes by complex folding techniques called “letter blocking”, which transformed a letter into its own secure envelope.
However, the closed letters that survive to the present are fragile and can only be physically opened by cutting them into pieces.
The new X-ray method offers researchers a non-invasive alternative, while maintaining the original folded shape of a pack of letters.
For the first time, scientists applied this method to “closed” letters from the Renaissance period, kept in a trunk that had been in the collection of the Dutch postal museum in The Hague, Netherlands, since 1926.
Related: Photos: Treasury of Unopened 17th Century Letters
The contents of the trunk include more than 3,100 undelivered letters, of which 577 were unopened and letter-locked. Known as the Brienne Collection, the letters were written in Dutch, English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.
For unknown reasons, once the missives reached The Hague, they were never delivered to their intended recipients, but instead were kept by a postmaster named Simon de Brienne, Live Science previously reported.
Locked letters used a variety of mechanisms to stay securely closed, including folds and scrolls; slits and holes; folds and adhesives; and a variety of cleverly built locks, according to a study published online March 2 in the journal Communications from nature.
To penetrate the layers of folded paper, the study authors used an X-ray microtomography scanner designed at the Queen Mary University of London (QMU) dental research laboratories.
The researchers designed the scanner to be exceptionally sensitive so that it could map the mineral content of teeth, “which is invaluable in dental research,” study co-author Graham Davis, professor of 3D X-ray imaging, said in a statement. by QMU.
“But this high sensitivity has also made it possible to resolve certain types of ink on paper and parchment,” Davis added.
“The rest of the team were able to take our scanned images and convert them into letters that they could virtually open and read for the first time in more than 300 years,” said study co-author David Mills, manager of X-ray microtomography facilities at QMU, it said in the statement.
From the scans, the team constructed 3D digital reconstructions of the letters and then created a computational algorithm that deciphered the sophisticated folding techniques, fold-by-fold, virtually opening the letters “while preserving evidence of letter blocking,” according to the study.
Scientists digitally opened four letters using this innovative method, deciphering the content of one letter, DB-1627.
Written on July 31, 1697, it was written by a man named Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, who lived in The Hague. Sennacques, a legal professional in Lille, France, requested an official death certificate for a relative named Daniel Le Pers, “perhaps due to an inheritance issue,” the scientists wrote.
“His request issued, Sennacques then spends the remainder of the letter asking for news of the family and commending his cousin to the graces of God,” the authors wrote. “We do not know exactly why Le Pers did not receive Sennacques’s letter, but given the roaming of the merchants, it is likely that Le Pers would have left.”
Tens of thousands of these sealed documents can now be displayed and read virtually, the researchers reported.
“This algorithm takes us right to the heart of a closed letter,” the research team said in the statement. “Using virtual display to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day, and never reached its intended audience, is truly extraordinary.”
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This article was originally published by Live Science. Read the original article here.