Papyrus Reveals New Clues to Ancient World

April 25, 2005

Classical Greek and Roman literature is being read for the first time in 2,000 years thanks to new technology. The previously illegible texts are among a hoard of papyrus manuscripts. Scholars say the rediscovered writings will provide a fascinating new window into the ancient world.

Salvaged from an ancient garbage dump in Egypt, the collection is kept at Oxford University in England. Known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the collection includes writings by great classical Greek authors such as Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Using a technique called multi-spectral imaging, researchers have uncovered texts that include

• parts of a lost tragedy by Sophocles, the 5th-century B.C. Athenian playwright;
•sections of a long-vanished novel by Lucian, the second-century Greek writer; and
• an epic poem by Archilochos, which describes events that led to the Trojan War.

Christopher Pelling, regius professor of Greek at Oxford University, said the works are "central texts which scholars have been speculating about for centuries."

Researchers hope to rediscover examples of lost Christian gospels which didn't make it into the New Testament, along with other important classical writings.

The papyrus manuscripts were found at the site of the disappeared town of Oxyrhynchus in central Egypt more than a hundred years ago. The text in much of the collection has become obscured or faded over time.

Researchers at Oxford University are now employing a digital imaging process that's able to reveal ink invisible to the naked eye. They say the technique should boost the amount of writing available to scholars studying the collection by around 20 percent.

Deciphering Technique

Dirk Obbink, a lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford, directs the research. He says the digital imaging process was first developed for researchers who studied Roman texts buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in the first century.

"We're applying it for the first time to non-carbonized ancient manuscripts on papyrus, which was the paper of the ancient world," Obbink said. "Most of our collection comes from rubbish dumps, so it's been in contact with soil for thousands of years and can be quite dark."

The imaging process works by using different filters to isolate the waveband to which the hidden writing responds. "Some [text] respond[s] in the ultraviolet range, some in the infrared range," Obbink said. "The technique involves finding the exact right point at which the ink reflects at maximum contrast against the slightly less dark surface so you can read it."

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