Men & machines reconstruct past

B.N. Goswamy discusses how research institutions all over the world are engaged in removing grime from fragments of the past, using the latest technology.

Palimpsest: n., a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.

Papyrus fragment in extremely damaged form Memphis, Egypt, XXVI dynasty; 6th century BC Private collection, France
Papyrus fragment in extremely damaged form Memphis, Egypt, XXVI dynasty; 6th century BC Private collection, France

Suddenly, there is talk of how artifacts from the ancient world can be brought on to the "information superhighway." Research institutions all over the world are engaged in recovering, reconstructing and giving some order to the past that lies hidden in the forgotten fragments of paper and clay and parchment, using the latest, state-of-the-art technology.

Even monks at the oldest Christian monastery in the world, the St Catherine’s on Mount Sinai in Egypt, are planning to use digital cameras to extract hidden information from ancient manuscripts, including the oldest existing Christian Bible, the Greek Codex Sinaiticus. What they are employing is ‘hyperspectral imaging’, which takes pictures of the pages at different wavelengths. What sounds like bytes from some science fiction narrative is in fact a method to retrieve faded revisions that were made to the parchments by hand over the years by ancient scholars.

There is also the case of the celebrated Archimedes palimpsest. With the help of digital image analysing techniques, this unique object, the only surviving copy from the original Greek which from the 10th century onwards has been erased and reused and re-erased, might yield more than what that great mathematician of the ancient world wrote about his well-known ‘Method of Mechanical Theorems’. There is excitement in the air everywhere. Investigators at the Brigham Young University have developed an imaging system that could radically change our understanding of history. By lifting previously unreadable text from ancient scrolls, the team is resurrecting moments from man’s collective history. The Duke University Papyrus Archive now provides electronic access to texts about and images of a vast number of papyri from ancient Egypt. A whole new world is opening up for archaeologists, papyrologists, classical scholars, coptologists, and the like.

In the midst of reading about all this—and one understands very little of it from the outside—my eye landed upon an item of truly unusual interest. It related to a neglected place called Oxyrhynchus, "city of the sharp-nosed fish," which was a provincial capital in Egypt once populated by descendants of the Greek settlers. Here, on the outskirts of the town, was a municipal dump where people used to discard trash.

A mound, nearly nine metres high, had formed there, drawing the attention of archaeologists. When they excavated the mound, they found "a treasure more precious than gold", the report said. For buried in the dump were more than 400,000 fragments of papyrus – bits of documents, pieces of scrolls and pages from old books – written between the second century BC and the eighth century AD, and preserved ever since in the hot, dry climate. The documents seemed to be very diverse in character: pieces of property records, epistles from the New Testament, writings from early Islam and fragments of unknown works by the giants of classical antiquity.

There was tantalising material here, but too difficult, almost impossible, to make sense of. Till, of course, the new technology came along. Now, with ‘multispectral imaging’—something that NASA developed for its own purposes— the grime of centuries can be removed from these fragments and previously invisible scripts seen. Already, they are speaking of astounding discoveries.

This mound of trash seems to be a repository of ancient texts that were completely unknown till now: bits of lost plays by Euripides, Sophocles and Menander, for instance; lost lines from the poets Sappho and Hesiod. There were layers of plaster stuck over some of the papyrus pieces, but it was still possible to read the lines, as if through X-ray vision. "It is one of the most exciting tasks we have undertaken," some of the scientists or archaeologists involved in the project of scanning these ancient texts say.

Consider this against the information that classical scholars have about the oeuvre of the great masters of the past. "We have seven plays by Sophocles, and there are about 90 missing. Euripides wrote 100 plays, and Menander about 70", of which vast quantities have been lost, we read. Now the gaps can start filling up. Archaeologists are assembling information from this dump at Oxyrhynchus, and from the charred remains of an entire Roman Library south of Naples that got ‘roasted’ when the Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. The tasks posed by the two ‘repositories’ of fragments are quite different.

In one case, the scrolls had been ‘cooked’ in fire during the eruption, ‘like rolled-up newspapers trapped in an oven’, and it was a matter of reading black upon black; in the other case the fragments were encrusted with soil, sand, mud and paint, and eaten up by salt and insects. But the new technology is triumphing over all that. If today Hesiod’s little known "Catalogue of Women", a genealogy describing the love affairs of gods with mortals, can be reconstructed, it is because men and the machines they have made are working together towards the same end.

A curious note at the end. And it comes from Dr Booras, one of the scholars at the Brigham Young University who worked on the Roman Library remains. He says it is ironic that the cataclysm that destroyed the library actually preserved the scrolls. All other papyrus scrolls from this time have turned to dust, he notes, but the burned scrolls can still transmit information.

Will wonders ever cease?