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How gel and X-rays are helping us fix art and read thousand-year-old manuscripts

My dream is that we also use these methods to solve murder mysteries

Detail from “Ascesa Dei Beati,” part of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Sistine Chapel. On the right is a 16th century drawing reproducing the same detail. An inscription “di mano di Michelangelo” (from Michelangelo’s hand), on the bottom-left side of the drawing, was hidden by a tape and revealed after restoration.
Image: PNAS

If you use tape to hang up a drawing, it’s tricky to later get that tape off without ruining the image. When the drawing in question is centuries old, the stakes are far higher. But researchers have figured out how to fix this problem, and their tape-removal method has already revealed secrets from a 16th century drawing. This innovation is just one technological advance that’s helping us learn about the past, from confirming a cause of death to reading thousand-year-old manuscripts.

To solve the tape issue, scientists at the University of Florence developed a clear, rubbery gel that can be cut to the exact size needed. Just stick it on the tape, and gently peel both the gel and the tape off. (They explained the process in a paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) Using this method, the researchers found the words “di mano di Michelangelo” (“from the hand of Michelangelo”) under a piece of tape stuck on a drawing of a detail from Sistine Chapel. Is this claim real? Why would someone want to hide this? Others are now investigating, though the researchers suggest it’s probably a false claim.

The scientists also used their tape-removal method on drawings by Italian artist Lucio Fontana.
Image: PNAS

In that case, the scientists wanted to remove the tape to reveal the art underneath. But another reason to remove debris is to see what we can learn from the debris itself. By placing tiny films on objects, scientists can collect and then analyze the residual proteins and bacteria. Do this to 10 random pages from the original manuscript of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and you’ll find traces of morphine as well as protein biomarkers of kidney disease, which is consistent with the fact that Bulgakov finished the book just weeks before he died. The same method has been used on the death registries from the 17th century Milan plague outbreak and even the shirt Anton Chekhov wore on the last day of his life.

Then there are X-rays and other imaging methods. Just recently, scientists used digital imaging to find hidden pages of Anne Frank’s diary. And researchers at Stanford University used an advanced X-ray technique to see the hidden text in a millennia-old document. In the sixth century, the famous Greek physician Galen wrote, “On the Mixtures of and Power of Simple Drugs,” but because parchment isn’t cheap, someone scraped it off and wrote religious hymns over it 500 years later. Using the X-rays, Stanford scientists could see below the hymns to the original text.

As these techniques become more common, we’ll be seeing more and more stories about decoding ancient documents. But the dear hope of my heart is that we use these techniques to decode a mysterious page of poetry and solve a classic murder mystery. On a December day in 1948, a dead man washed up on a beach in Australia. Nobody knew who he was, and he had no identification. But he did have a scrap of paper that read “taman shud,” or “the end.” These are the last two words of The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam, a famous book of poetry. A little while later, an anonymous source came forward with the book that had the missing last page. (The source claims someone threw said book through an open window into the backseat of his car.)

The book did indeed have the last page missing, and it also had a bunch of capital letters written on it, like WRGOABABD and WTBIMPANETP. This case has stumped cryptographers and police and the most recent theories seem to revolve around autopsies and DNA testing. But what about the fragment and the book itself? I’m not saying X-rays or protein analysis can tell us who his man is, but I do feel comfortable demanding that, if we haven’t already, we should turn the full force of technology to investigating the fragment and solving the mystery so I can sleep at night.