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Recovering Hidden Texts

At the world’s oldest monastery, new technology is making long-lost manuscripts available to anyone with an Internet connection

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Palimpsest St Catherine s monastery

 

Sometime in the eighth century, a monk at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was preparing to transcribe a book of the Bible in Arabic and needed fresh parchment. New parchment was an expensive commodity at the time and was difficult to obtain, especially for a humble monk copyist living in a remote desert monastery. Luckily for him, the venerable religious community had a massive library that included books that were no longer in use. These manuscripts, some written in extinct languages, or thought to be unimportant, were valued only for their potential as sources of recycled parchment. No one in the monastery would have thought twice, for instance, when, while searching for writing material, the monk plucked out of the collection an ancient Greek text that had gone unread for a generation or more. None of his brothers would have batted an eye as he used a knife to carefully scrape away the centuries-old ink. Soon, the words were gone and the parchment was ready for the monk’s fresh transcription of Bible verses. Today, erasing an ancient text seems an incalculable loss, but to the eighth-century scribe, it was an act of devotion and even a measure of progress—an obsolete text was gone, and a holy manuscript that would enrich countless spiritual lives was left in its place.

 

Palimpsest spectral imaging systemThe original words on this reused text, or palimpsest, have been lost for over a thousand years. But now with the help of modern multispectral imaging technology, a team of scientists and scholars is able to peer through the manuscript’s visible ink and read the long-vanished text below. The library at St. Catherine’s contains well over a hundred such palimpsests, each one offering vivid new glimpses of the early Christian era. Later this year, after a large number of the palimpsests have been studied and translated by specialists, the monastery will make them available online, meaning that texts that have gone unread for a millennia can be pored over by scholars and interested laypeople from all over the world. “These are cultural treasures that are important to our common history,” says Michael Phelps, executive director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, which works with the UCLA Library to coordinate the project. “We’re helping recover lost communities that made important spiritual and literary contributions, and allowing their voices to speak again.”

Sidebar:
Agnes Smith
The Bible Hunters

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