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October 23, 2006

Palaeography tutorial

excerpt from an 18th century will

Can you understand any of the words in the image above? If you're like me the answer is "not too damn many". Welcome to the world of Palaeography, the study of old handwriting. That example above (part of the 1722 last will and testament of an English shipwright named Thomas Pike) was plain as day to people in the 18th century, but it's almost completely incomprehensible to most of us here in the 21st century. This is a big deal to historians, who rely on old texts as one of the main ways of learning about the past (My ex-wife, an European historian, could easily read marriage records from 15th Century Amsterdam. I couldn't even recognize the letters).

The British National Archives has a very cool mini site on palaeography. The site includes lots of tricks and techniques for deciphering old script and, best of all, interactive tutorials that let you try your eye at deciphering more and more difficult texts. It sounds uber-nerdy, but it's actually a lot of fun.

Kind of like studying history.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at October 23, 2006 03:46 PM


Old handwriting, sure! But just try to read a MacDraw file on a diskette from the late '80s! It's not going to take 283 years to make PDF, Postscript, or MP3 illegible. How long do you think it'll be until my DVD-RWs are more obscure than the Archimedes Palimpsest?

Posted by: G. L. Dryfoos at October 24, 2006 01:58 PM