Imaging Technology Makes Ancient Text Readable

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005

Two thousand years ago, Oxyrhynchus, "city of the sharp-nosed fish," was a provincial capital in central Egypt populated by the well-educated descendants of Greek settlers. It had an 11,000-seat theater, a religious cult dedicated to the city's namesake -- and a municipal dump on the outskirts of town.

People discarded trash there and probably never gave it a thought, and over the years the mound grew to a height of 30 feet. When archaeologists excavated it at the turn of the 20th century, they found a treasure more precious than gold.

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 2nd century B.C. and the 8th century A.D. and preserved ever since in the hot, dry climate.

For years, scholars have been trying to decipher these texts, which include property records, epistles from the New Testament, writings from early Islam and fragments of unknown works by the giants of classical antiquity.

The pace of discovery has been painstaking, but this year scientists brought an innovative imaging technology to the fragments, enabling them to peer though the grime of centuries to see previously invisible script while leaving the crumbling papyrus undamaged.

The technology, multispectral imaging, has dramatically increased the recovery rate. In a pass through a collection of Oxyrhynchus papyri at Oxford University's Sackler Library last month, scholars turned up tantalizing new bits of lost plays by Euripides, Sophocles and Menander and lost lines from the poets Sappho, Hesiod and Archilochus.

"It's one of the most exciting things we've ever done," said Roger T. Macfarlane, a classicist at Brigham Young University. "There are pieces of papyrus that have gesso [a plaster] over the text, but with the filters it's almost like X-ray vision."

A BYU team led by Macfarlane has been using multispectral imaging since 1999, and it turned to the Oxyrhynchus fragments after focusing first on the spectacular Villa of the Papyri, an entire Roman library roasted in place during the fabled eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii in A.D. 79.

Between them, the charred Herculaneum scrolls and the Oxyrhynchus trash are the world's two largest known repositories of previously unread ancient manuscripts -- a collection of staggering potential.

"We have seven plays by Sophocles, and there are about 90 missing. Euripides wrote 100 plays and Menander about 70," said Richard Janko, a classicist at the University of Michigan. "Herculaneum is the only place in the ancient world where a library has been buried, and the garbage dump is almost as good."

Multispectral imaging was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to allow telescopes to peer through shrouds of dust and gas, and to reveal the surfaces of distant planets. By using different filters, the instrument can ignore irrelevant light frequencies and focus on the target object.

Working with Gene Ware, an emeritus electrical engineer at BYU, Macfarlane's team produced remarkable results with the Herculaneum scrolls as it scanned in infrared and near-infrared frequencies, causing what are opaque surfaces to the naked eye to blossom suddenly with hidden script.

Many of the scrolls had been lovingly unrolled, while others were unforgivably torn apart by discoverers and early archivists to get at the text, but Macfarlane's basic task was the same for all -- use the imager to read black on black. The scrolls had been cooked in place during the eruption, like rolled-up newspapers trapped in an oven.

Oxyrhynchus presented a different set of problems.

"The fragments have been darkened from light brown to dark dirty brown, covered with soil, sand, mud and paint, and eaten by salt, insects and God knows what else," said papyrologist Dirk Obbink, director of the recovery efforts.

Also, the material from Oxyrhynchus, unlike Herculaneum's, "is what people throw away," Obbink said in a telephone interview. "There are private papers, public records, and pieces of Menander and Sophocles. Finding a page from a book is typical."

Obbink, who holds appointments at both Oxford and the University of Michigan, is a leading authority on ancient classics and conservation. He won a 2001 MacArthur Fellowship for his work at both Oxyrhynchus and Herculaneum. In 1996, he reconstructed Philodemus's "On Piety," a treatise on the gods and religion, from seemingly disparate pieces of the Herculaneum scrolls.

At Oxyrhynchus, Obbink is trying to repeat this achievement by recovering Hesiod's "Catalogue of Women," a genealogy describing the love affairs of gods with mortals and the offspring they produced. "We have so many pieces now that the text can be said to exist," Obbink said. "There are a lot of gaps, but you can read it."

Unlike in the European Middle Ages, when books were made of animal hide parchment so costly that virtually no one but the very rich could own one, ordinary citizens had access to papyrus -- the leaf of a common plant -- and they might buy a scroll or, after the 4th century, a loose-leaf book known as a codex.

"There was access to literacy during the Roman period, and many people at least could write their names in their personal dealings," Obbink said. "Some women were literate and were teaching school."

Evidence for all of this can be found in the dump. Obbink said the largest percentage of literary texts at Oxyrhynchus is made up of fragments of Homer, whose archaic Greek was taught in school to hone language skills.

Euripides, Sophocles and Menander were popular authors read for amusement, and when the flimsy pieces started to give way, readers tore off the damaged ones, used the margins for writing notes to themselves and then tossed them in the trash. It worked the other way, too. Literary texts frequently appeared on the backs of recycled personal documents.

Obbink and his colleagues have found a variety of languages and scripts in the fragments. Besides Greek and Latin, they include Hieratic (cursive hieroglyphs), Demotic (hieroglyphic shorthand), Coptic (Egyptian with the Greek alphabet), Aramaic, Hebrew, Persian, Old Nubian, Syriac and, in the later deposits, Arabic.

Obbink is going through 725 boxes of material to pick out the promising fragments, which are assigned to students "who translate them and try to figure them out," he said. "It's part of learning Greek and Latin, and it sharpens your editing skills."

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