The Jigsaw Puzzle Problem Revisited

  1. 1. Michael Levison

    Department of Computing and Information Science - Queen's University

  2. 2. James Wu

    Department of Computer Science - McGill University

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The Jigsaw Puzzle Problem Revisited

Department of Computing and Information Science Queen's University

Department of Computer Science McGill


University of Virginia

Charlottesville, VA





More than thirty years ago, the first author was asked about the potential
for the use of computers in the reconstruction of ancient manuscripts from
fragments. This resulted in two publications (Levison, 1965 and 1967), while
independently Ogden (1969) presented a PhD thesis describing the use of a
computer to assist in piecing together one of the Chester-Beatty papyri. As
far as we have been able to discover, there has been no further published
work on this topic. In the case of the most famous collection of fragmented
manuscripts, the Dead Sea scrolls, scholars apparently made no use of
computers for their reconstruction, though this aspect of their work may
have been substantially complete before computers were readily available.
Wacholder and Abegg (1991) used a computer in an effort to reconstruct the
unpublished Dead Sea scrolls from a concordance, but this is much simpler
than the tasks described here, since the concordance already gives the
location of each component.
The many-hundredfold increase in the speed and capacity of computers over the
intervening period caused the authors to revisit this problem, and consider
solutions which were infeasible in the 1960's.

Two Problems
A fragment consists of a few lines of text, each containing a few characters
of some alphabet. The word "few" is purposely vague. It should be noted,
however, that if a fragment contains a substantially complete non-trivial
word and comes from a known text, a scholar will likely recognize it, either
directly or by consulting a concordance. Contrariwise, if a fragment is
sufficiently small, containing only a couple of common letters, it might be
found almost anywhere in any text, and is essentially useless for
reconstruction purposes. We shall return to this topic later.
As it happens, there are two different types of reconstruction problem, each
involving a different strategy for its solution. Commonly, the text from
which the fragments come is already familiar (say, it is a variant
manuscript of the book of Isaiah), and can be recognized instantly from some
of the larger fragments. In this case, the best strategy for reconstruction
is to locate each fragment in an existing copy of the text. This is
analogous to solving a jigsaw puzzle by laying each piece in its proper
place on a full-size version of the finished picture, without reference to,
or comparison with, any other piece of the puzzle. To the extent that we can
achieve this, we obtain an approximation to the required result. We call
this Jigsaw Problem A.
On the other hand, when the text is unfamiliar, we must resort to comparing
pairs of fragments to discover juxtapositions in which, say, the right edge
of one fragment is a good match for the left edge of another, and reasonable
letter sequences are formed across the boundary. This is analogous to
solving a jigsaw puzzle whose picture is unknown. We call this Jigsaw
Problem B.

A Simple Experiment
To investigate the solution of Problem A, a simple experiment was conducted
using an electronic version of Lewis Carroll's Alice's
Adventures in Wonderland (Duncan Research, 1991). A paragraph
chosen at random by one of the authors was reformatted to a different page
width and printed in a fixed font. It was then divided into fragments using
horizontal and vertical lines (Figure 1). The resulting fragments were
entered into the computer in a specified format, and used by the other
author for reconstruction.
In this edition, Alice contains about 150,000
characters, of which the chosen paragraph has 922, divided into 53
fragments, averaging 17 to 18 characters each. (The whole text would
therefore contain about 8600 fragments of similar size.)
A fragment-searching program was written by the second author. Essentially,
this attempts to locate the first line of the fragment in the text, followed
within a certain range by the second, and so on. Initially this range must
be quite broad, since the line width and layout of the fragmented manuscript
may not be known. Later, when several fragments have been successfully
located, the range is refined.
Levison (1965), which was concerned with minimizing computer time to make the
process feasible, describes three algorithms for the search. Since timing is
no longer an issue for Problem A, the current program used the simplest of
these, locating all 53 fragments in the entire text in about 12 seconds,
using a Pentium Pro 180 PC.
Of the 53 fragments, 51 were sited uniquely in the text, while one was
located in more than 120 positions. The remaining fragment gave rise to four
sites, but these were, in essence, a single position with four alternative
locations for the first line ("he "). These results accord with the analysis
in the next section.
The algorithm used in the program is linear with the number of fragments (and
also with the length of the text.) Thus we might expect to locate a complete
set of fragments for Alice in about 30 minutes.

An Analysis
Let us look more closely at the results we might expect to obtain from the
preceding process, given the size of fragments and the relative frequencies
of their letter sequences. We will assume that these frequencies are largely
independent of the content, and that particular sequences are scattered
randomly through the text. Clearly, this is not true in all cases. For
example, the letter sequence "Alice" occurs far more often in Alice than in
English texts as whole, while occurrences of "Hatter" are confined to a
fairly small section. We are, however, concerned only with orders of
magnitude, rather than precise values.
Let f(x) denote the frequency per letter for the
letter sequence x in the language of the
fragments. Approximate values for the frequencies per letter of single
letters in English are shown in Figure 2. We see that f("e") is 0.084, implying that 8.4%
of letters in a typical English text are "e", or put another way, that 0.084
is the probability that a letter chosen at random in an English text will be
an "e". Similar tables can be established for letter sequences of lengths 2,
3, ... (which we will call digraphs, trigraphs, ...) by tabulating
occurrences in a cross-section of texts.

Figure 2. Approximate frequencies per letter
for single letters in English. (The space character accounts for most of
the missing fraction.)

a 0.053
b 0.011
c 0.014
d 0.031
e 0.084
f 0.014
g 0.016

h 0.046
i 0.047
j 0.001
k 0.008
l 0.030
m 0.016
n 0.045

o 0.055
p 0.009
q 0.0009
r 0.041
s 0.042
t 0.064
u 0.022

v 0.006
w 0.016
x 0.0009
y 0.016
z 0.0004

Let f1, f2, f3, ... denote the frequencies per
letter of the first, second, third, ... lines of a fragment. (If a fragment
has a line of length 5, say, and we have frequency tables only up to
trigraphs, the least frequent trigraph provides an upper bound and an
adequate estimate.) Let V be the width of the
range of letters to be scanned for a line other than the first.
Then, the probability that the first line starts at a particular letter in
the text is f1; and the probability that a later
line starts in any of V successive positions is given by: pn = 1 - (1 -
fn)V(approximately V.fn if
fn is very small). Then P = (f1.p2.p3 ...) estimates the probability that a given
fragment arises at a particular site in the text purely by chance.
Now suppose the length of the text (in letters) is T. Then if P.T is much less than 1,
this fragment is unlikely to occur in the text by chance alone. So, provided
that the fragment is actually present, we can expect to find exactly one
location -- the correct one. On the other hand, if P.T is much more than 1, then the fragment can be expected to
occur many times by chance alone, and the reported locations will be helpful
only if most of these can ruled out, perhaps by overlap with uniquely
positioned fragments. Values of P.T near to 1
can be expected to yield a few locations, and overlap or shape must be used
to choose between them.
This is exactly what is observed for 52 of the fragments in the experiment;
and in fact, the 53rd is positioned uniquely if we ignore its first line.
This first line is itself so common that it occurs several times on every
line of text1. The extreme situation is illustrated by an
English fragment of four lines, each containing only "e". For V = 10,P is about
0.017, and for a line of length L = 70,
P.L is 1.19. This fragment itself,
therefore, can be expected to appear on every
line of a typical English text, as a quick glance will
verify.. Hence the result.

Problem B
Where the text of the fragmented manuscript is unknown, a completely
different strategy is necessary. Based on a digitized representation of the
shapes of the fragments as well as frequency tables for digraphs, trigraphs,
etc. and perhaps a lexicon of the language, we need to develop a scoring
algorithm, and apply it to all possible juxtapositions of the fragments, to
find the "best" matches. In this way, we seek to build horizontal bands of
text (assuming the language involves letters written horizontally across a
page) from which the manuscript can be reassembled.
Using the previous set of fragments, we experimented with several scoring
algorithms. Because of the (oversimplified) method used to create them, the
left- and right-edges of these fragments can be represented by columns of
integers giving the displacement of each line-end (in character widths) from
an arbitrary vertical datum. The differences between corresponding integers
allow us to determine which lines fit. This is illustrated in Figure 3.
These experiments had limited success. The fits identified as best for a
given fragment were rarely the correct ones, though the correct fits were
often among the top five. The process in its present form, therefore,
reduces human comparison substantially but does not replace it. The reason
is easy to discover. Whatever the scoring algorithm, shape inevitably
assumes far greater importance than language information, since we cannot
even use the latter on lines which do not fit together. This works against
vertically displaced correct fits, which are at a disadvantage compared to
"square on" incorrect ones. And, of course, the oversimplification of the
shape causes far too many apparent shape matches. This problem can be
overcome with a more accurate shape representation, but feasibility then
becomes an issue.
In contrast to Problem A, computing time for Problem B is a significant
consideration. For a set of n fragments
averaging p lines each, there are roughly 2p.n2, possible juxtapositions2. For a
human, the number of comparisons is simply n2, since the eye encompasses and evaluates all the vertical
displacements of a pair of fragments at a single glance. A computer must
consider each separately.. This amounts to around 25,000 for the
53 fragments above, 700 million for the whole of Alice. (To put this into
perspective, if the scoring algorithm were to take 100 microseconds, the
full comparison would require 200 hours.)
The computation can be rearranged. Typically, a human might inspect a
fragment to determine the possible characteristics of the one to its right,
and then search for a fragment having these features. This does not reduce
the number of comparisons to be made, unless these characteristics allow the
fragments to be classified or sorted, so that the search can be limited to a
fraction of them. Nonetheless, the characteristics of the neighbours of each
fragment need be computed only once, and approximate matches might be used
to limit the number of neighbours which have to be examined in more detail.
We will investigate this in subsequent work.

In summary, Problem A can be solved very efficiently with a computer,
provided that the fragments are not so small as to make a solution
meaningless. Furthermore, there is an analysis which can be used to
determine a priori whether any or all fragments
can be sensibly located.
A computer solution to Problem B is more difficult, currently reducing rather
than eliminating human comparison. A more complex comparison process along
with faster (or parallel) processing is likely to alter the balance.
Thus, when a 40th century London shepherd strays into a cave, comes upon the
archaeological remains of the former British Library, and finds the
fragmented manuscript of Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland, she should be able to reconstruct it quickly, using
her trusty PC Laptop.


Duncan Research

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in
The Millennium Fulcrum Edition 2.7a



The Siting of Fragments

Computer Journal




The Computer in Literary Studies


Machine Translation

North-Holland Publishing Company


The siting of papyrus fragments: an experimental
application of digital computers

Ph.D. Thesis 3195

University of Glasgow



A Preliminary Edition of the Unpublished Dead Sea
Scrolls, etc., Fascicle One

Biblical Archaeology Society

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia, United States

June 9, 1999 - June 13, 1999

102 works by 157 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (19), ALLC/EADH (26), ACH/ALLC (11)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None