In a 21st-century version of the age of discovery, teams of computer scientists, conservationists and scholars are fanning out across the globe in a race to digitize crumbling literary treasures.
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.
By taking high-resolution digital images in 14 different light wavelengths, ranging from infrared to ultraviolet, Oxford scholars are reading bits of papyrus that were discovered in 1898 in an ancient garbage dump in central Egypt. So far, researchers have digitized about 80% of the collection of 500,000 fragments, dating from the 2nd century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. The texts include fragments of unknown works by famous authors of antiquity, lost gospels and early Islamic manuscripts.
Among their latest findings: An alternate version of the Greek play Medea, later immortalized in a version by Euripides, on a darkened piece of papyrus, dated to the 2nd century A.D. In the newly discovered version -- written by Greek playwright Neophron -- Medea doesn't kill her children, says Dirk Obbink, director of Oxford's Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project.
Also in the article is a list of neat links to archives of these documents:
Clicking On The Past
In the era of instant information, libraries, museums and universities are racing to scan rare manuscripts and artifacts in their collections and make them available online. Here are some of the most significant artifacts now on view on the Web:
The British Library
The library began a massive digitization project in 2005 with Microsoft, and plans to scan 25 million book pages.
Mozart's composition books dating from 1784 to 1791, when he composed some of his most famous works, including five operas, several piano sonatas and his last three major symphonies.accessible/introduction.html
Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. A collection of loose papers and notes, these 28 pages outline da Vinci's fascination with mechanics, bird flight and studies on reflections and curved mirrors. The Italian script is written in da Vinci's typical left-to-right "mirror writing."accessible/introduction.html
The Library of Congress, 'American Memory'
This archive of American manuscripts, recordings, maps, films and images was launched in the mid-1990s and now contains about 15 million items.
Four Walt Whitman notebooks, with writings from 1842 to 1937, including poetry, prose, proofs and correspondence.collections/whitman/
Former slaves' narratives: audio files recorded in nine Southern states between 1932 and 1975, with 23 interviewees. Some are being made publicly available for the first time and include transcripts.collections/voices/
The World Digital Library
Last month, Unesco launched this new online archive of significant artifacts and manuscripts from 30 collections around the world.
Oracle Bone, about 1200 B.C., from the National Library of China. The flat piece of bone, inscribed with Chinese characters, was used for divination.
Albert Einstein's application for citizenship, dated 1936, from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Digitization projects are also bringing previously unknown manuscripts to light -- and to the Web, where scholars and curious Internet surfers alike can look at high-resolution digital images of new discoveries from the ancient world.
The Archimedes PalimpsestResearchers at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore uncovered a 10th-century copy of two treatises by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, concealed underneath the text of a 13th-century prayerbook.
The Oxyrhynchus PapyriThis represents one of the largest collections of ancient papyri, some 500,000 pieces excavated around 1900 in Egypt. One sample fragment on view online contains elegiac verses by seventh-century B.C. poet Archilochus.
Codex Sinaiticusmanuscript.aspxPortions of the 4th-century manuscript, thought to be the oldest complete Bible in the world, are now scattered in several collections around the world, but the complete text is being reassembled, in digital form, on the Web.