Using graphic design software to unravel ancient mysteries

In a little article I recently published, I show how modern graphic design software can be used to analyze symbols from medieval texts. The article is available here in PDF, and can also be accessed on the magazine’s website. The process involved is as follows:

  1. I obtained high(-enough) resolution digital photos of manuscripts (and, in this case, one edition).
  2. I cut out a block containing the symbols and loaded this into Adobe Illustrator. In Illustrator you can create vector images. Vector images are, under the hood, merely descriptions of different points, lines, and surfaces. This means that the computer will calculate the shapes each time the picture is loaded. This, in turn, means that you can zoom in as much as you want and the shape will stay crisp and clean (example), unlike images based on pixels where each pixel has a hard-coded color-value.
  3. I carefully recreated the shape with the pen tool, trying to maintain as much of the shapes and curves as possible.
  4. I then played around with colors, rotations, mirroring, and spatial order, noticing in this case that the shapes may be made up of letters.
  5. I drew the shapes again, this time in small constituents.
  6. I separated the constituents to compare the different variations of the symbols.
  7. I repeated step four.
  8. I then combined different constituents to make up letters, each combination given a different color.
  9. The different letters thereby became visible.


Especially step seven (a repetition of step four) was where using Illustrator became extremely convenient. I probably could have done the same in InkScape, a free program to create vector images. The usefulness of using these programs is the easiness of manipulating the shapes. For example, I thought that maybe if the symbols were broken up into parts and spatially rearranged they would form a new symbol, one which meaning would be patently clear or which would form some sort of map. I did not talk about this in my article since nothing came of this exercise. But doing it was fun and easy.

Here are two examples not featured in the article:



One example, click to enlarge


Another example, click to enlarge


One thought on “Using graphic design software to unravel ancient mysteries

  1. Have you had a go at digipal? A quite useful software for palaeography which was used for a project on Scottish mss and hands. You can make your own local database using docker. Tehy have a good documentation on docker and github.

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