Roger L. Easton Jr. ’72 Presents Multispectral Imaging Technology at Haverford

Leading members of the field of imaging science visited campus to demonstrate its potential applications in libraries and museums, including Haverford’s own collection.

On October 19, Roger L. Easton Jr. ‘72 and Tania Kleynhans, both of Rochester Institute of Technology, visited Haverford to demonstrate multispectral imaging. Easton and Kleynhans work in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, which focuses on using imaging systems in environmental science, national security, medicine, and other fields. One of their particular research interests is the development of a multispectral imaging system that can be used to read hidden or erased text on historical documents.

This technology was the subject of their presentations at Haverford. Presenting to both a general audience in Lutnick Library, as well as in a few selected classics courses, Easton and Kleynhans briefly demonstrated and explained the science behind their technology.

“In ancient times, people might have considered a work of writing to not be valuable, and would have scraped the writing off of the leather, in order to reuse it,” Kleynhans explained. “Though the original writing appears to be gone, it actually leaves behind an imprint on the page, called an undertext.”

Using equipment developed by Kleynhans herself, the pair imaged a sample document in 16 different wavelengths of light, each capturing a certain range of the text. While some ranges of light, such as infrared, are invisible to the naked eye, they play an important role in viewing the undertext.

Using a computer program to compile the images, Kleynhans demonstrated the technology’s ability to view undertext that is invisible to the naked eye.

Easton went on to explain some of the works that they had been involved in imaging, most notably the Archimedes Palimpsest, a work that had been rewritten over in 1229. Some of their other imaging subjects were the Martellus Map from 1491, which they imaged at Yale University; the 1507 Waldseemüller Map, housed at the Library of Congress; and the Zacynthius Palimpsest at Cambridge University Library. They are currently imaging the Sinai Palimpsests at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, a collection containing over 100 palimpsests—or pieces of writing in which the original text has been effaced and written over—to examine.

Kleynhans noted that her primary interest has been making this technology more accessible to institutions.

“It can cost up to $100,000 to get this equipment, but the technology we have today can do it just as well for only $5,000,” she said. “Using a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we hope to be able to distribute this to museums across the country, and write a complete user manual for it, since the software is all open source.”

During their visit to Haverford, Easton and Kleynhans also conducted some imaging of some materials from Haverford’s own Quaker and Special Collections. Manuscripts from the Middle East donated by James Rendel Harris, a Haverford faculty member from 1886 to 1891, were the primary attraction for Easton and Kleynhans’ visit. Sarah Horowitz, head of Quaker and Special Collections, was incredibly excited to welcome the pair to campus.

“Haverford does not own a multispectral imaging system, which is one reason why it is exciting to have the opportunity to use this technique on our materials. We haven’t done any of this in the past, so this is a very exciting opportunity,” Horowitz said. “…To be able to reveal lost or hidden texts without damaging the materials has the potential to increase the information we have about the ancient and medieval worlds.”

Easton joked that Haverford’s documents were all kept in such excellent condition that there hadn’t been any discoveries yet, since the biggest discoveries often occur in documents that are in poorer condition.

“Our visit today is only scratching the surface,” Easton said. “I’m still hopeful for what we can find within Haverford’s collections.”

Easton found his way to a career in imaging science after studying astronomy at Haverford and working a government research job in optics. After completing his Ph.D. in optical sciences at the University of Arizona, he was one of the first new faculty hires at the Center of Imaging Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. 

“Though my time here has certainly been difficult on occasion, I do feel that I have been able to make an impact upon students here,” he said “I have often followed the examples of my teaching mentors at Haverford, including Dr. Louis Green and Dr. Bruce Partridge in the Astronomy Department, Dr. Jerry Gollub in Physics, and Dr. Francis Connolly, who was formerly in the Mathematics Program.”

Though imaging science explores the past, Easton sees it as very important to the future. “It becomes clearer by the day that the threats of insurrections and climate change are worsening the prospects for the preservation not only of manuscripts themselves, but also of the ideas recorded in them,” he said. “The role of imaging science lies not just in creating methods for recording the appearances of manuscripts, but also to enhance their readability and even make visible writings that had been lost.”

“The continuous advance in imaging technology suggests that these tools will become more widely available to the conservation and museum communities, so our informal group R-CHIVE (Rochester Cultural Heritage Imaging, Visualization, and Education) is planning to serve as a resource for education for users in the technology, as well as to help make the tools themselves more widely available,” he said.

Easton expressed interest in returning to campus to continue imaging manuscripts, since their visit only took place over a single day.

“Since we really only had about eight to ten hours of actual imaging time while we were at Haverford, I think it is quite possible that there may be additional manuscripts in the Tri-College libraries that would benefit from imaging,” he said. “We really enjoyed our short visit there, and Sarah Horowitz and the library staff were extraordinarily generous with their time to get us the objects of interest and to arrange for a suitable location for the imaging.”

Dr. Tania Kleynhans stands in front of a projector displaying images of a palimpsest in different wavelengths, revealing an undertext.
Dr. Tania Kleynhans presents the same palimpsest imaged in three different wavelengths to display an undertext.