Category Archive 'Philology'

21 Jan 2015

Reading the Herculaneum Papyrus Scrolls

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The only library surviving from Classical Antiquity is that found in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.

1,785 papyrus scrolls were found, packed carefully in cases and ready to be moved to safety, which were nonetheless overtaken by a 1,000 °C (1,830 °F) cloud of hot gas and rocks emanating from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The scrolls were charred black, but preserved under 20-25 meters (22-27 yards) of hardened volcanic ash.

New techniques apparently are beginning to permit scholars to read the scrolls.

io9 quotes a recently published paper in Nature Communications:

In recent years, new imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls. Until now, specialists have been unable to view the carbon-based ink of these papyri, even when they could penetrate the different layers of their spiral structure. Here for the first time, we show that X-ray phase-contrast tomography can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them. This attempt opens up new opportunities to read many Herculaneum papyri, which are still rolled up, thus enhancing our knowledge of ancient Greek literature and philosophy.

Smithsonian reports what has been discovered so far, no lost plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus, no poems of Sappho, no treatises of Plato or Dialogues of Aristotles, instead they’ve found lots of Philodemus.

Most of the scrolls that have been unwrapped so far are Epicurean philosophical texts written by Philodemus—prose and poetry that had been lost to modern scholars until the library was found. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who developed a school of thought in the third century B.C. that promoted pleasure as the main goal of life, but in the form of living modestly, foregoing fear of the afterlife and learning about the natural world. Born in the first century B.C. in what is now Jordan, Philodemus studied at the Epicurean school in Athens and became a prominent teacher and interpreter of the philosopher’s ideas.

Modern scholars debate whether the scrolls were part of Philodemus’ personal collection dating to his time period, or whether they were mostly copies made in the first century A.D. Figuring out their exact origins will be no small feat—in addition to the volcano, mechanical or chemical techniques for opening the scrolls did their share of damage, sometimes breaking the delicate objects into fragments or destroying them outright.

13 Sep 2012

Palimpsest Hunt Is On In Sinai Monasteries

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Most readers probably remember the Archimedes Palimpsest, the discovery of the survival of seven treatises by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, including his The Method which solved several problems using methods anticipating the Integral Calculus developed by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz in the 17th Century, in a palimpsest used to record a 13th century Byzantine prayerbook.

Palimpsests are pages of manuscripts or scrolls from which earlier writings have been scraped away, so that the parchment could be reused to record a different text. This medieval form of recycling inadvertently makes the recovery of the eliminated earlier texts possible when modern sophisticated methods of imaging are used.

The Washington Post recently reported that a team, headed by Michael Toth, a former DOD imaging expert, is working systematically on a project which is examining the very large collection of manuscripts preserved over the centuries in the Greek Orthodox monasteries of the Sinai.

The more prominent legible words are 1,200 years old and are interesting enough, but they are not what the scientists are here for. The team is really after the overwritten text from centuries earlier, last seen by the person who scraped it away to recycle the precious animal-skin parchment.

Such erased texts are known as palimpsests, and until their pages enter the imaging room, no one alive now or, in many cases for more than a millennium, can say for sure what has been hidden. The work is tedious, like carefully brushing away sand at a traditional archaeology dig, but the promise of what can be found is a powerful motivator.

This is Toth and his colleagues’ most ambitious project to date, and it is just one component of a major transformation under way in the desert. The team is working within the stone walls of the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai — St. Catherine’s for short.

For 17 centuries, the Greek Orthodox Christian monks here have protected an unparalleled trove of manuscripts. Now the monastery is in a multimillion-dollar push to physically and digitally protect its treasures and make them easily accessible, in most cases for the first time, to scholars around the world.

In the process, the monks will establish a model for the preservation of irreplaceable ancient manuscripts in a world where more and more of them are threatened by the chaos of war and revolution.

Read the whole thing.

The possibilities are fascinating. We know of countless lost classical works which we moderns would love to get our hands on, poems by Sappho, plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles, the dialogues of Aristotle and the treatises of Plato, that might very possibly have seemed of indifferent interest to Eastern churchmen of the Dark Ages and which could easily have been selected to be scraped away and overwritten with some, at the time seemingly more pertinent, religious text.

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