Over 600 years ago, someone folded, sealed and mailed a letter that was never delivered. Now scientists have digitally “unfolded” this and other similarly locked 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 intricate folding techniques called “letterlocking,” which turned a letter into its own secure envelope.
However, the locked letters that survive so far are fragile and can only be physically opened by cutting them into pieces.
The new method of radiography offers researchers a non-invasive alternative, retaining the original folded shape of a packet of letters.
For the first time, scientists have applied this method to Renaissance “locked” letters, kept in a trunk that has been in the collection of the Dutch Postal Museum in The Hague, Netherlands, since 1926.
Related: Photos: Treasure of Unopened 17th Century Letters
The contents of the trunk include more than 3,100 undelivered letters, of which 577 are unopened and 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 recipients and were kept by a postmaster named Simon de Brienne, Live Science reported.
Locked letters used different mechanisms to stay securely closed, including folds and rolls; slots and holes; folds and adhesives; and a variety of intelligently constructed locks, according to a study published online March 2 in the journal Nature communications.
To penetrate the layers of folded paper, the study authors used an x-ray microtomography scanner designed in the dental research laboratories of Queen Mary’s University in London (QMU).
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,” said study co-author Graham Davis, professor of 3D X-ray imaging at QMU.
“But this high sensitivity has also helped resolve certain types of ink in paper and parchment,” Davis added.
“The rest of the team was then able to take our scanned images and turn them into letters that they could virtually open and read for the first time in over 300 years,” said David Mills, co-author of the study. , head of X-ray microtomography facilities at QMU, said in the statement.
From the scans, the team built 3D digital reconstructions of the letters, then created a computational algorithm that deciphered the sophisticated folding techniques, fold by fold, virtually opening the letters “while preserving evidence of letter locking. “, according to the study.
Scientists digitally opened four letters using this revolutionary method, deciphering the contents 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, “possibly due to a question of inheritance,” the scientists wrote.
“His request made, Sennacques then spends the rest of the letter asking for news of the family and recommending his cousin to the graces of God,” write the authors. “It is not clear exactly why Le Pers did not receive the letter from Sennacques, but given the roaming of the merchants, it is likely that Le Pers is gone.
Tens of thousands of those sealed documents can now be unfolded and virtually read, the researchers reported.
“This algorithm takes us to the heart of a locked letter,” the research team said in the release. “Using the virtual deployment to read an intimate story that never saw the light of day – and never even reached its recipient – is truly extraordinary.”
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This article was originally published by Live Science. Read the original article here.