'Lost' classical manuscripts give up their secrets after 9,000 years
A VAST array of previously unintelligible manuscripts from ancient Greece and Rome are being read for the first time thanks to infra-red light, in a breakthrough hailed as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail.
The technique could see the number of accounted-for ancient manuscripts increase by one fifth, and may even lead to the unveiling of some lost Christian gospels.
A team at Oxford University is using the technology to bring back into view faded ink on thousands of papyrus scrolls salvaged from an ancient rubbish dump in the 19th century.
The "multi-spectral imaging process", which is also used in producing images from satellites, uses infra-red light to reveal ink invisible to the eye.
The collection, taken from the now-disappeared town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, has been stored in the Sackler library in Oxford, where it is the largest of its kind in the world.
Material ranges from the 3rd to the 7th centuries BC and includes work by classical writers such as Sophocles, Euripides and Hesiod. But many of the manuscripts have decayed and blackened over time.
Those uncovered so far include parts of the Epigonoi, (Progeny), a long-lost tragedy by Sophocles, the 5th century BC Greek playwright, and part of a lost novel by Lucian, a 2nd century Greek writer. There is also an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th century successor of Homer, which describes events leading up to the Trojan war.
Dr Dirk Obbink, who is leading the imaging work, said it had far-reaching significance.
He said: "The Oxyrhynchus collection is of unparalleled importance - especially now that it can be read fully and relatively quickly.
"The material will shed light on virtually every aspect of life in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, and, by extension, the classical world as a whole."
Christopher Pelling, regius professor of Greek at Oxford University, said the works were "central texts which scholars have been speculating about for centuries".
Oxyrhynchus, situated on a tributary of the Nile 100 miles south of Cairo, was a prosperous regional capital and the third city of Egypt, with 35,000 people. It was populated mainly by Greek immigrants, who left behind tonnes of papyri upon which slaves trained in Greek had documented the community’s arts and goings-on.
Oxford’s researchers started salvaging 100,000 fragments of papyri from the town’s rubbish dump in 1897 and shipped some 800 containers back to Britain. About 2,000 pieces of the papyri have been published and mounted in glass, but the rest has remained in boxes. According to the current research team, "the mass of unedited material represents the random waste-paper of seven centuries of Greco-Egyptian life".
Some 10 per cent of it is literary, the fragmentary remains of ancient books, with the rest documents of public and private life, such as census returns, tax assessments, court records, wills, horoscopes and private letters.
Melvyn Bragg, the peer, author and broadcaster, who presents In Our Time, on the history of ideas, on Radio 4, also hailed the breakthrough. He said: "It’s the most fantastic news. There are two things here. The first is how enormously influential the Greeks were in science and the arts. The second is how little of their writing we have. The prospect of having more to look at is wonderful."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west