Infrared technology enables recovery of lost classical writings

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

An example of a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, mostly readable but with a few worm-holes

Papyrologists at Oxford University in England last week reported major literary finds in examining old fragments of papyrus with a new technique: multi-spectral imaging (MSI). The fragments were unearthed near the buried town of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in a major archaeological find a century ago. Many of the fragments were unable to be read until now.

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, which were 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.

The site was explored in the late 19th century by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt of Oxford University, during which 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. Among the items currently being worked on are parts of a play by Sophocles, a lost novel by Lucian, mythological poetry by Parthenius of Nicaea, an elegiac poem by Archilochus, and other writings by Euripides and Hesiod.

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.


Mistakes seem to exist in some of the sources, see notes below.

Notes regarding sources

Several mistakes seem to exist in the sources.

1 Scotsman News' headline: Lost' classical manuscripts give up their secrets after 9,000[sic] years

This may be a typo, the alarming date is not even mentioned in the text of the article, and other articles about this innovation say the texts have been illegible due to fading of ink for about a thousand years. The headline should probably be 'Lost' classical manuscripts give up their secrets after 900 years, referring to the length of time they have been unreadable.
This apparent error was repeated in several other titles concerning this article, such as by Webindia123,, and the Economic Times.
The following statement by previous Wikinews author retained, although not checked yet: "The actual period of interest is at most, 300 BC to today, a period of some 2,300 years, not 9,000 years, which would actually be a period of years that predates the dawn of civilization by several millennia." This statement is merely obtained based on facts in the article that the authors in question wrote from 3rd century BC to 7th century AD, suggesting an upper limit on the age of the documents.

2 Date range the papyri were supposed to have been deposited, given by Scotsman News, Sci-Tech Today as 3rd to 7th centuries BC.

This is probably a typo, the website of Classics at Oxford, where the research is being done, gives 3rd century BC to 7th century AD.
This is a more reasonable figure, given the mention of Christian gospel writings among the fragments, since the authors of Christian gospel were not typically noted for writing three centuries before the birth of Christ.

3 A third possible error concerns the number of fragments, as stated in the Independent's article, "Scientists begin...", which quoted a figure of 400,000 fragments.

The Oxford research website mentions only 100,000 fragments.

In conclusion, as classical authors themselves might have once said, "Caveat lector" (let the reader beware).

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