Infrared technology enables recovery of lost classical writings

Multi-Spectral Imaging

Multi-Spectral Imaging (MSI) is based on technology originally developed by NASA to photograph features of other worlds in bands beyond the visible spectrum, both infrared and ultraviolet. The technology was adapted by researchers at Brigham Young University to filter a narrow bandwidth of infrared light, which reacts with ink but not the surrounding material, making the writing stand out more easily and plainly than before and enabling non-destructive photographs of formerly invisible text to be taken.

MSI was successfully used in 1999 to read many of the Herculaneum Scrolls, considered to be blank or charred beyond recognition until then. Herculaneum was a town in ancient Italy that was buried next to Pompeii in its volcanic eruption of 79 AD, leaving many scrolls damaged but naturally preserved.


Oxyrhynchus, whose name means “sharp-nose”, was a town located along a tributary of the Nile in ancient Egypt and populated largely by Greek immigrants. The name refers to a river-dwelling fish with a long snout that was worshiped as the town’s patron deity by a local cult.

In between the town’s surrounding wall and the local farmlands, there developed a number of dumping sites for papyrus and other materials, many of which have survived to the present day buried under mounds of sand because of dry, rainless local conditions. Papyrus, a paper-like writing surface made from reeds along the Nile river, normally does not last and no actual books written on ancient papyri have been uncovered.

When the site was explored in the late 19th century by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt of Oxford University, about 100,000 fragments of papyrus were unearthed which today are stored at Sackler Library, Oxford, in the largest collection of its kind in the world.

Classical and Christian Writings

Oxyrhynchus was not noted as a center of learning, and 90% of the fragments found there are expected to be mundane yet useful in reconstructing ancient daily life, including such things as “codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records; sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, [and] private letters.” According to researchers on the project, “the mass of unedited material represents the random waste-paper of seven centuries of Greco-Egyptian life.”

The remaining 10% could possibly contain unknown portions of literary classics of Greek and Roman antiquity, or even lost Christian gospel copies or apocryphal writings. Within the past week alone, for the first time, scholars have read parts of a play by Sophocles, a lost novel by Lucian, mythological poetry by Parthenios, an epic poem by Archilocus, and other writings by Euripides and Hesiod, mostly Greek writers living sometime between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD.

Given that Oxyrhynchus was also the site of a discovery of portions of the Gospel of Thomas (although that discovery was later overshadowed by the discovery of a more complete copy among the Dead Sea Scrolls), many classical scholars are excited by the new discoveries.

“The Oxyrhynchus collection is of unparalleled importance — especially now that it can be read fully and relatively quickly,” said Dr. Dirk Obbink of Oxford, who is leading the imaging project. “The material will shed light on virtually every aspect of life in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt and, by extension, in the classical world as a whole.”

The amount of new material, estimated to be around 5 million words, could expand the entire storehouse of classical writings by as much as 20%.

Digital photographs of some of the writings are expected to be published as early as next month; given the number of fragments, the effort in documenting and preserving them may continue as long as the next decade.

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