[Image courtesy of WikiHow.]
Have you ever solved a cryptogram? (Or another coded puzzle where each letter is replaced with a different letter, digit, or symbol?)
While the solve can vary in difficulty, the solving experience is fairly simple: you look for and identify patterns in the encrypted message, then use that information to figure out which letter/number/symbol represents each letter.
Maybe you see QYR’P and XHR’P, and deduce that R and P are actually N and T because of the apostrophe. Maybe you see the letter pattern BRV at the end of several words and realize it’s -ING.
By finding these patterns, you can turn a pile of gibberish into a message, essentially creating your own Rosetta Stone for this particular puzzle.
[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]
It’s not just the repetition of characters and pattern recognition that reveal everything that can be learned from text, even text in a foreign language.
After all, plenty of crime stories rely on recognizing the handwriting from a random note or a threatening letter and matching it to a writing sample from another character in the story.
Taking this concept a step further, purveyors of handwriting analysis sometimes claim to be able to tell you about the writer (whether they’re male or female, how educated they are, and more). Beyond that, some assert they can infer details about the writer’s emotional state WHILE writing a given message, based on angles of pen strokes, closeness of letters, and so on.
[Image courtesy of PBL Forensic Investigations.]
While handwriting analysis is more a mix of pattern recognition, assumptions, and interpretation than a straightforward science, it’s still amazing what can be gleaned from the written records people leave behind.
And as it turns out, when you add computers to the mix, you can do the same on a more massive scale to uncover some pretty impressive insights.
Yes, we’re not just learning about languages and the contents of messages written long ago. As we implied above, we’re also starting to find clues about the authors themselves.
Take, for instance, this story about a recent computer analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
[Image courtesy of Artnet.]
Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of ancient Jewish and Hebrew religious manuscripts discovered in the Qumran Caves, near the Dead Sea. They consist of some of the oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later found in the Hebrew Bible and other important texts. In fact, they include fragments from every book in the Old Testament (except for the Book of Esther).
Mladen Popovic, professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, teamed up with a colleague who has been working on software and hardware that would allow computers to “read” handwriting, particular handwriting from historical materials. Lambert Schomaker, professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, focused on one particular scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, known as the Great Isaiah Scroll.
This scroll was chosen because, although the writing appears to be uniform, some scholars believed there were two scribes involved in writing it, suggesting that after column 27, a second scribe had taken over duties on the scroll.
From the article:
‘This scroll contains the letter aleph, or “a,” at least five thousand times. It is impossible to compare them all just by eye.’ Computers are well suited to analyse large datasets, like 5,000 handwritten a’s. Digital imaging makes all sorts of computer calculations possible, at the microlevel of characters, such as measuring curvature (called textural), as well as whole characters (called allographic).
[Image courtesy of FDE-Sperry.]
And what did this study reveal?
His analysis of textural and allographic features showed that the 54 columns of text in the Great Isaiah Scroll fell into two different groups that were not distributed randomly through the scroll, but were clustered, with a transition around the halfway mark.
Popovic expanded on this discovery, stating that “we can confirm this with a quantitative analysis of the handwriting as well as with robust statistical analyses. Instead of basing judgment on more-or-less impressionistic evidence, with the intelligent assistance of the computer, we can demonstrate that the separation is statistically significant.”
Yes, there were two scribes involved in writing the Great Isaiah Scroll. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we could learn about the many scrolls discovered in the Qumran Caves.
By taking these puzzly observational techniques and using the incredible computing power and analysis capabilities available to modern researchers, we’re slowly unraveling more mysteries from the past.
Who knows what we’ll unearth next?