Hidden texts revealed in ancient manuscripts

Cool story out of the Smithsonian:

Last summer, Giulia Rossetto, a specialist in ancient texts at the University of Vienna, was on a train home to Pordenone, in northern Italy, when she switched on her laptop and opened a series of photographs of a manuscript known as “Arabic New Finds 66.”

It is no ordinary manuscript. In antiquity, it was common practice when parchment supplies were limited to scrape the ink from old manuscripts, with chemicals or pumice stones, and reuse them. The resulting double-text is called a palimpsest, and the manuscript Rossetto was studying contained several pages whose Christian text, a collection of saints’ lives written in tenth-century Arabic, hid a much older text beneath, in faintest Greek.

Further in, the article explains the use of multispectral imaging which involves creating a digital version of the manuscript that can be looked at via computer to get a much more thorough glimpse at the writing and evidence of past writing. So neat what people can figure out to improve research in their fields.

Late last month, the monastery [St. Catherine’s in Egypt] and the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library [in California] announced at a conference in Athens that over the five-year period they had imaged 6,800 pages from 74 palimpsests, which will be made accessible online by UCLA sometime in early 2018. So far, their work has revealed more than 284 erased texts in ten languages, including classical, Christian and Jewish texts dating from the fifth century until the 12th century. The collection is being compared to the greatest manuscript discoveries of the 20th century, including the Nag Hammadi codices of Egypt and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It all sounds heady and very exciting for everyone who’ll get the opportunity to decipher and read these lost texts. Who knows what else remains to be discovered. So far it’s medicine, a bible, poetry, and even lost languages. The findings also point to the increasing likelihood that scholars/monks had been making their way to Egypt and St. Catherine’s for hundreds of years to write, erase, and write over and over again what was important at the time. And now has come the time to discover what it was they knew.

(I confess some envy..)

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