Researchers read sealed 17th-century letter without opening it

An international team of researchers from universities including MIT, King’s College London, Queen Mary University London, Utrecht and Leiden, were able to read an unopened letter from 1697 for the first time using X-ray technology.

They worked with X-ray microtomography scans of the letter, which use X-rays to see inside the document, slice by slice, and create a 3D image. Then applied computational flattening algorithms to the scans to enable them to virtually unfold the letter without ever opening it, and discovered that French merchant Jacques Sennacques from Lille had been asking his cousin in The Hague for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers.‘

The letter had been closed using “letterlocking”, a process in which the letter is folded to become its own envelope, in effect locking it to keep it private. It is part of a collection of some 2,600 undelivered letters sent from all over Europe to The Hague between 1689 and 1706, 600 of which have never been opened.

Virtual unfolding’ is hailed a breakthrough in the study of historic documents as The Unlocking History research group, which includes historians, conservators and scientists, published their findings on Tuesday in an article in Nature Communications. They say this is the first time an unopened letter from Renaissance Europe has been read without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way. It is a breakthrough for the study of historic documents using virtual unfolding, because the papers’ folds, tucks, and slits provide valuable evidence for historians and conservators.

“This algorithm takes us right into the heart of a locked letter,” write the research team in the paper, led by Jana Dambrogio and Amanda Ghassaei. “Sometimes the past resists scrutiny. We could simply have cut these letters open, but instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret and inaccessible qualities. We’ve learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened. Using virtual unfolding to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day – and never even reached its recipient – is truly extraordinary.”

The letters in the Brienne collection, say the researchers, “bear witness to the fragility of lines of communication at a time when Europe was torn by war, economic crisis, and religious differences”, and where “people moved frequently, sometimes in haste, leaving no forwarding address because they did not have one, or they were not at liberty to divulge it”.

Read more at The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/02/researchers-read-sealed-17th-century-letter-without-opening-virtual-unfolding-x-ray?fbclid=IwAR27J6sd0PM8xZXxpi9EkJHLBc9AVzntogLqRKM1csyzXnv9ZrDpW9kVdLM

Picture courtesy of Unlocking History

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