British researchers say new technology may soon allow historians to crack the world's oldest as-yet undeciphered system of writing.
Scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton have developed a new imaging system to capture some of the world's most important historical documents.
The technique, dubbed reflectance transformation imaging, uses a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome. A manuscript is placed in the center of the dome as 76 photos are taken with one of the 76 lights individually lit for each exposure.
The 76 images are then combined so that researchers can move the light across the surface of the digital image and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-before-seen details.
Among the documents photographed are manuscripts written in the so-called proto-Elamite writing system used in ancient Iran from 3,200 to 3,000 B.C., the oldest undeciphered writing system currently known.
By viewing extremely high quality images of these documents, and by sharing them with a community of scholars worldwide, researchers hope to crack the code once and for all.
"We have never been able to view documents in this quality before," researcher Jacob Dahl said in an Oxford release.
"The quality of the images captured is incredible. And it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning," Dahl said.
"Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t."