Three centuries after it was penned, the contents hidden inside a Renaissance-era letter plucked from a trunk at The Hague are finally readable. The correspondence, which we now know was likely spurred by questions about an inheritance, was part of a larger collection of nearly 600 letterlocked notes, a complex method that involves meticulously folding, rolling, tucking, and adhering the paper into its own envelope. Prior to the advent of other sealing practices, this security measure ensured that no one transporting the note became privy to its contents.
According to an article in Nature, a group of MIT researchers, who work as Unlocking History, digitally unraveled the letter, which otherwise would have to be opened by cutting through the paper, damaging the object and potentially leaving it unreadable. Instead, they employed a particularly sensitive X‐ray microtomography scanner designed for dental practices, including mapping the exact mineral content of teeth. After scanning the paper, researchers constructed 3D models alongside an algorithm built to determine specific folding patterns, allowing them to open the note without physically altering the artifact.
Dated July 31, 1697, the letter contained a request for a death certificate from a man named Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, who lived at The Hague. “His request issued, Sennacques then spends the rest of the letter asking for news of the family and commending his cousin to the graces of God,” researchers said. “We do not know exactly why Le Pers did not receive Sennacques’ letter, but given the itinerancy of merchants, it is likely that Le Pers had moved on.” It’s unclear why this letter or the hundreds of others, which are written in Dutch, English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, never reached their recipients.
Head to Vimeo to watch Unlocking History unfold replicas of infamous and fictional correspondence—the collection spans from Mary Queen of Scots to Harry Potter to Beethoven—and dive further into the practice on the group’s site, where you’ll find folding guides, a lengthy history, and an entire archive of discreet missives. (via Science Alert)
Update: This article originally stated that the letter was written six centuries ago, not three.
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