In the process, they’re uncovering unexpected troves of new finds, including never-before-seen versions of the Christian Gospels, fragments of Greek poetry and commentaries on Aristotle. Improved technology is allowing researchers to scan ancient texts that were once unreadable — blackened in fires or by chemical erosion, painted over or simply too fragile to unroll. Now, scholars are studying these works with X-ray fluorescence, multispectral imaging used by NASA to photograph Mars and CAT scans used by medical technicians.
A Benedictine monk from Minnesota is scouring libraries in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Georgia for rare, ancient Christian manuscripts that are threatened by wars and black-market looters; so far, more than 16,500 of his finds have been digitized. This summer, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky plans to test 3-D X-ray scanning on two papyrus scrolls from Pompeii that were charred by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. Scholars have never before been able to read or even open the scrolls, which now sit in the French National Institute in Paris.
While conservationists are quick to stress that pixels and bytes can never replace priceless physical artifacts, many see digitization as a vital tool for increasing public access to rare items, while at the same time creating a disaster-proof record and perhaps unearthing new information.
An even more pressing concern for some scholars is that shoddy imaging work might damage manuscripts or fail to capture key details, such as binding styles, which give clues to a manuscript’s date and origin. Some experts say the push toward online archiving could ultimately hurt scholarly work by creating the illusion that everything is available online, when the digital record remains full of holes. In the age of instant information, physical artifacts seem increasingly at risk of being rendered obsolete.
“It’s being called a second Renaissance,” says Todd Hickey, a curator of papyri at the University of California, Berkeley, which has some 26,000 pieces of papyrus, many still unread. “It’s revealing things that we didn’t have a hope of reading in the past.”
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