Archaeologists Are Only Just Beginning to Reveal the Secrets Hidden in These Ancient Manuscripts

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. Nothing was known about what this “undertext” contained. Rossetto, a PhD student, was given the images as an afterthought, when an older scholar complained that reading them was beyond his failing eyesight.

But these were no ordinary photographs, either. They were taken using a state-of-the-art technique known as multispectral imaging, or MSI, in which each page of a text is photographed many times while illuminated by different colors and wavelengths of light, and then analyzed using computer algorithms to find a combination that most clearly distinguishes the two layers of text. As Rossetto’s train sped through the Austrian Alps, she flipped between the images, adjusting the contrast, brightness and hue to minimize the appearance of the Arabic overtext while picking out tiny Greek letters, each around three millimeters tall.

The style of the script suggested that it was probably written in Egypt in the fifth or sixth century, and Rossetto expected another Christian text. Instead, she began to see names from mythology: Persephone, Zeus, Dionysus. The lost writing was classical Greek.

There was no internet connection on the train. But as soon as she got home, Rossetto rushed to her computer to check her transcription against known classical texts. “I tried different combinations, and there was nothing,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is something new.’”

In his poem “Endymion,” based on a Greek myth about a shepherd beloved by the moon goddess Selene, John Keats paid tribute to the enduring power of superior works of art. “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” he wrote. “Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.” Surely to uncover lost poetry from an ancient civilization from which we draw so many of our literary traditions is as exciting as unearthing any material treasure.

And this promise reaches beyond aesthetics. When classical Greek literature was rediscovered during the European Renaissance, it remade Western civilization, and planted seeds that still shape our lives today: Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about the pursuit of happiness were sparked by the Greek philosophers; suffragists were inspired by Euripides’ heroine Medea. Like finding an old photograph of a long-dead relative, discovering a lost piece of text can help us glimpse ourselves in the people who came before us.

Rossetto’s text is just one of hundreds whose recovery was recently announced by researchers participating in a project to decipher the secrets of a unique treasury. In the Sinai Desert, in Egypt, a monastery called St. Catherine’s hosts the world’s oldest continually operating library, used by monks since the fourth century. In addition to printed books, the library contains more than 3,000 manuscripts, accumulated over the centuries and remarkably well preserved by the dry and stable climate. The monks at St. Catherine’s were particularly fond of reusing older parchment for their religious texts. Today the library holds at least 160 palimpsests—likely the largest collection in the world. But the ancient scribes did their job frustratingly well. In most cases, the texts underneath were hidden and, until now, thought lost.

St. Catherine’s, a community of 25 or so Greek Orthodox monks at the foot of Mount Sinai, transcends history, in that ancient traditions live on into the present day. The first mention of its written collection comes from an account by a fourth-century pilgrim named Egeria, who described how the monks read biblical passages to her when she visited a chapel built to commemorate Moses’ burning bush. In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Justinian protected that chapel with hefty granite walls. Fifteen hundred years later, they stand intact.

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