Europe's Oldest "Book" Read With High-Tech Imaging

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 6, 2006

Modern imaging technology is resurrecting lost chapters of Europe's oldest surviving "book."

The Derveni papyrus, a fourth-century B.C. religious discourse, was charred in an ancient funeral pyre, making portions of the text unreadable.

Now experts from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, are using high-tech methods to expose the blackened script, which could help complete existing partial translations of the document.

An international team funded by the National Geographic Society recently used similar techniques to authenticate the lost Gospel of Judas. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Specifically, a technique known as multispectral imaging may be able to reveal as much as 10 or 20 percent of the scorched sections of the Derveni scroll, researchers said last week.

NASA developed multispectral imaging so that telescopes could see through space dust and gases to peer further into the cosmos. The method involves taking multiple images of the same subject using different light wavelengths.

Brigham Young scientists are using the technique to filter out various unwanted light frequencies and find the wavelength that makes black text visible against the darkened background.

Archaeologist Polyxeni Veleni is director of Greece's Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, where the manuscript is currently housed.

"We were now able to read even the most carbonized sections, as there were pieces that were completely blackened and nobody could make out whether there were letters on them," he told the Associated Press.

Scroll Saved by Funeral Pyre

The Derveni papyrus dates to about 340 B.C., making it the oldest surviving Greek papyrus (Greece profile, map, music).

Images on pottery and other artifacts prove that Greeks used papyrus scrolls even before the fourth century B.C., but no others are known to exist.

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