Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier
Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier

New Technology Uncovers Hidden Pictures in ‘Blank’ 16th-Century Book

Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier
Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier

Researchers have discovered fascinating historical images in a "blank" pre-Columbian book. Hyperspectral scans of seemingly empty pages revealed stories and characters never before seen in Mixtec manuscripts. A report on the findings was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

European explorers brought a lot of things to the Americas—looking at you, smallpox—but the concept of books wasn’t one of them. Mesoamerican cultures had developed sophisticated books of their own long before the Spanish conquistadors burst onto their shores. Most of those books, like most of those cultures, did not survive the invasion. Today, fewer than 20 pre-Columbian codices, or books, remain.

One of those books has frustrated historians for more than half a century. The Codex Añute, also known as the Codex Selden, looks an awful lot like a blank book. But in 1958, researchers got a glimpse of pigment through a crack in one page’s white paint. They became sure that the deerskin book was a palimpsest, a book that had been erased or masked to make room for new text. The gesso on the pages was not a base layer, they said, but the Mixtec version of Wite-Out.

The codex as it appears to the naked eye. Image Credit: Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier

Unfortunately, they couldn’t prove it—at least not without destroying the book. The most advanced imaging technology in their arsenal, the X-ray, was no use, since the Mixtecs’ pigments of choice don’t absorb X-ray radiation.

Fast-forward to 2014, also known as the future. Astrophysicists are using a new technique called hyperspectral imaging, which picks up all the light, visible or invisible, reflected by an object. Oxford University's Bodleian Library has acquired its own scanner and is turning its gaze not to the stars, but onto objects right here on Earth—including books. The technique can do what X-rays and other types of scans cannot: pick up organic pigments. So a trio of hopeful researchers decided to give the Codex Añute another go.

Their decision paid off. The codex was most definitely a palimpsest. Scans of seven pages revealed vibrant depictions of dozens of figures (see the photo at the top of this page), including red-haired women, two siblings connected with an umbilical cord, and people walking with staffs or spears. The pictographic text is not a fictional story nor a religious text but a genealogy depicting various important Mixtec lineages.

"What's interesting is that the text we've found doesn't match that of other early Mixtec manuscripts,” co-author and Leiden University archaeologist Ludo Snijders said in a statement. “The genealogy we see appears to be unique, which means it may prove invaluable for the interpretation of archaeological remains from southern Mexico.”

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Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
New 'Eye Language' Lets Paralyzed People Communicate More Easily
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // ;CC BY-SA 4.0

The invention of sign language proved you don't need to vocalize to use complex language face to face. Now, a group of designers has shown that you don't even need control of your hands: Their new type of language for paralyzed people relies entirely on the eyes.

As AdAge reports, "Blink to Speak" was created by the design agency TBWA/India for the NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute and the Asha Ek Hope Foundation. The language takes advantage of one of the few motor functions many paralyzed people have at their disposal: eye movement. Designers had a limited number of moves to work with—looking up, down, left, or right; closing one or both eyes—but they figured out how to use these building blocks to create a sophisticated way to get information across. The final product consists of eight alphabets and messages like "get doctor" and "entertainment" meant to facilitate communication between patients and caregivers.

Inside of a language book.
Sagar.jadhav01, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This isn't the only tool that allows paralyzed people to "speak" through facial movements, but unlike most other options currently available, Blink to Speak doesn't require any expensive technology. The project's potential impact on the lives of people with paralysis earned it the Health Grand Prix for Good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier in June.

The groups behind Blink to Speak have produced thousands of print copies of the language guide and have made it available online as an ebook. To learn the language yourself or share it with someone you know, you can download it for free here.

[h/t AdAge]

How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library

Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]


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