Announcing a world first! Our amazing interdisciplinary team has virtually unfolded and read an unopened letter from 1697 without breaking its seal, and officially launched #letterlocking as a field of study in Nature Communications.… #OA [going live today]
Like countless historic letters, it was sent using letterlocking - the process of folding and securing a writing substrate to become its own envelope. Our virtual unfolding process shows how this letter has been locked while preserving the packet intact for future study. 2/?
The letter is from one Jacques Sennacques, trying to chase up a legal document related to a death. The letter was never delivered. Come on, be a voyeur. You are among the first to read it in 300 years.
Here it is virtually unfolded and astonishingly legible. Remember, this packet is still unopened: its seal has never been broken!
Thanks to virtual unfolding, we can also read the letter for its #letterlocking properties, taking us deep into the heart of communication security. Letterlocking was ubiquitous for hundreds of years, but we are only recently beginning to understand it as a practice.
Why not just cut the letter open? We've only recently turned our attention to letterpackets as closed objects rather than carriers of texts. We can find out so much about letters by keeping these precious objects sealed. Opening them destroys subtle but important evidence.
Our article officially launches @letterlocking as a field of study, 20 years after Jana Dambrogio began work on it, after first encountering the phenomenon in what was then called the Vatican Secret Archives.
Our new Categories and Formats chart is the “periodic table” of letterlocking! It guides you through the manipulations used to make a locked letter, the different shapes a packet can take, and its security score. Will you join us on the hunt for more categories?
The article showcases animations of the virtual unfolding alongside images of the results, and downloadable foldable models so you can lock at home. All our resources are screen-reader friendly.
Today we’re also relaunching our website where you can find out more about our work and the Unlocking History research group. This work is designed to support and inspire everyone working on letters, one of the richest sources for the study of history.
We’ve also launched a new Facebook page where you can find out more about the letterlocking community around the world… Massive thanks to Jordi Rocha for his help with our social media!
Check out our YouTube channel for instructional videos of some 200 kinds of letterlocking, with lots more videos coming soon.…
The project began with research into musicians and religious exiles in early modern Europe, by musicologist Dr Rebekah Ahrendt @DrAhrendt of @UniUtrecht and historian of religion Dr David van der Linden @dcvanderlinden of @Radboud_Uni.
They knew right away what an amazing find this trunk was. Read the background story of the Brienne Collection in #OA via…
At the @RSAorg in New York in 2014, they made contact with spymistress extraordinaire Dr Nadine Akkerman @misswalsingham, serial archival sleuth and author of Invisible Agents…
Nadine knew that Jana Dambrogio of @MITLibraries and Daniel Starza Smith of @kingsenglishdpt (back then a @BritishAcademy_ fellow at @engfac and @LincolnAlumni) had been working on the history of how letters were folded and secured for delivery. So we all headed to The Hague…
Beeld en Geluid Den Haag / Sound and Vision The Hague @BenGDenHaag has been an immensely important research partner, giving us access to the trunk, space to work in, the expertise of curators Koos Havelaar and Ruben Verwaal…
But how to start getting inside an unopened letter? The next stage of the project relied on extremely high-quality scans produced by the X-ray microtomography team at @QMUL, @DTL & Graham Davis. Their scanners were designed to make scans of teeth and bones (and scrolls)!
Scan data was sent to MIT, where @amandaghassaei & @h_jackson_ , working w/ Erik & Marty Demaine at @MIT_CSAIL, developed a groundbreaking algorithm that can detect and unfold folded geometries without being told in advance what those geometries are.
Holly @h_jackson_ is an undergraduate student at MIT, and began working on the project when she was still at high school. While working with us she also published an article about the stellar DNA of the Milky Way. You know – as you do!…
In fact, it’s worth noting that three of the lead authors on this paper are women who do not hold PhDs. A PhD is not the only way into scientific research. #WomenInSTEM
The paper’s publication means we have finally “delivered” the project goals of Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered, generously funded by @NWOHumanities @NWONieuws. When we said in 2015 that we would do this, we genuinely didn’t know if it was possible!
The work has immediate ramifications for other known unopened materials. One of these collections, at the @UKNatArchives @UKNatArchivesRes, is The Prize Papers @Prize_Papers
Another collection of unopened documents, also at the @UKNatArchives @UKNatArchivesRes, is WARD 16 researched by @lottefikkers
With Ruben Verwaal, the #SSU team has set up an online exhibition about the Brienne trunk and its wonderful contents:…

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More from @letterlocking

2 Mar
Wow, thanks for all the excitement about the Unlocking History article! Ready for some more animations, images, resources, and information? Here we go… (article is live here now:…)
First of all, how about a deep dive into a locked letterpacket? Just look how detailed these scans of tiny details can be - we think they are breathtaking!
Remember, this is what we’re seeing from the outside - a closed and sealed document, its internal engineering invisible.
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