Handwritten characters in administrative antique documents from three centuries have been detected using different synchrotron X-ray imaging techniques. Heavy elements in ancient inks, present even for everyday administrative manuscripts as shown by X-ray fluorescence spectra, produce attenuation contrast. In most cases the image quality is good enough for tomography reconstruction in view of future applications to virtual page-by-page `reading'. When attenuation is too low, differential phase contrast imaging can reveal the characters from refractive index effects. The results are potentially important for new information harvesting strategies, for example from the huge Archivio di Stato collection, objective of the Venice Time Machine project.