MAY 8, 2009
The Next Age of Discovery
Ancient Manuscripts In a Digital Age
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.
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.
War and political instability in artifact-rich regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where untold numbers of antiquities have been lost through looting and destruction, have ignited the push to digitize rare documents. Recent tragedies, such as the earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, and the collapse this past March of the Cologne city archives in Germany, where conservationists are still working frantically to retrieve texts from the rain-soaked rubble, serve as reminders of how quickly cultural relics can be wiped out.
For as long as great manuscript collections have existed, their contents have been vulnerable. The ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt burned down in 48 B.C., incinerating works by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles; today, out of more than 120 plays by Sophocles, only seven survive.
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.
A digital arms race has been heating up in recent years as companies pour millions into large-scale digitization projects, including Microsoft's effort to scan 80,000 books at the British Library and IBM's multimillion-dollar project to create a virtual version of China's Forbidden City. The Ford Foundation and other organizations are funding a drive to translate and digitize some 700,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali. The world's oldest functioning monastery, St. Catherine's in Egypt, is digitally photographing its collection of roughly 5,000 scrolls and manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus, which dates to 330 A.D. and is thought to be the oldest Bible in the world.
Last month, the United Nations launched a "World Digital Library" with materials from 30 libraries and archives around the world, including the oracle bones, which hold the earliest Chinese writings, and an 8,000-year-old rock painting from South Africa. The project, which cost $10 million in private donations, has images of 1,200 texts and artifacts and is expected to grow to house millions of items.
One of the most ambitious digital preservation projects is being led, fittingly, by a Benedictine monk. Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's Abbey and University in Minnesota, cites his monastic order's long tradition of copying texts to ensure their survival as inspiration.
His mission: digitizing some 30,000 endangered manuscripts within the Eastern Christian traditions, a canon that includes liturgical texts, Biblical commentaries and historical accounts in half a dozen languages, including Arabic, Coptic and Syriac, the written form of Aramaic. Rev. Stewart has expanded the library's work to 23 sites, including collections in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, up from two in 2003. He has overseen the digital preservation of some 16,500 manuscripts, some of which date to the 10th and 11th centuries. Some works photographed by the monastery have since turned up on the black market or eBay, he says.
Among the treasures that Rev. Stewart has digitally captured: a unique Syriac manuscript of a 12th-century account of the Crusades, written by Syrian Christian patriarch Michael the Great. The text, a composite of historical accounts and fables, was last studied in the 1890s by a French scholar who made an incomplete handwritten copy. Western scholars have never studied the complete original, which was locked in a church vault in Aleppo, Syria. Rev. Stewart and his crew persuaded church leaders to let them photograph it last summer. A reproduction will be published this summer, and a digital version will be available through the library's Web site.
Scientists hope to use CAT scans to read carbonized ancient papyrus rolls from Herculaneum.
In February, Rev. Stewart traveled to Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities in Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, where he hopes to soon begin work on collections in ancient monastic libraries. "You have these ancient Christian communities, there since the beginning of Christianity, which are evaporating," he says He's now seeking access to manuscript collections in Iran and Georgia.
With his black monk's habit, trimmed gray beard and deferential manner, Rev. Stewart has been able to make inroads into closed communities that are often suspicious of Western scholars and fiercely protective of their texts. Armed with 23-megapixel cameras and scanning cradles, he sets up imaging labs on site in monasteries and churches, and trains local people to scan the manuscripts.
Once the labs are set up, the projects cost roughly $20,000 a year in private donations. A similar effort to digitize Greek New Testament manuscripts by the Texas-based Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts costs roughly $10,000 a week for staffing, travel and equipment.
Even as companies such as Google try to take digital archiving mainstream, uploading entire collections remains prohibitively expensive. Scanning books costs roughly 10 cents a page for regular books, and up to $100 or even $1,000 per book for rare manuscripts that require special handling and care.
Many conservationists are pessimistic about the prospect of putting entire library collections online within our lifetimes. The New York Public Library — one of the library collections partnering with Google — has digitally archived some 800,000 items, including 30,000 in the last nine months, but still has close to 50 million books and artifacts available only in print.
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.
For now, curators and conservationists say capturing endangered manuscripts should be a top priority.
Seeing the Works in Person
A selection of rare manuscripts on display now around the country
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
The museum, which has an impressive collection of 600 illuminated medieval manuscripts, is now showing "Prayers in Code," an exhibit of unusual Books of Hours from the late Middle Ages. Through July 19. http://thewalters.org
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Currently on view: items the Morgan has acquired since 2004, including manuscripts and letters by Robert Frost, Vincent van Gogh, Henry James, Dylan Thomas and Oscar Wilde. Through Oct. 18. www.themorgan.org
The Getty Center, Los Angeles
Medieval illuminated manuscripts from Germany and central Europe, illustrated with precious metals, are on view through May 24. www.getty.edu
Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Chinese calligraphic arts from ancient times to the Tang Dynasty are on display through Oct. 26. www.asia.si.edu
"This could be our only chance," says Daniel Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, the Texas-based center that is attempting to digitally photograph 2.6 million pages of Greek New Testament manuscripts scattered in monasteries and libraries around the world. The group has discovered 75 New Testament manuscripts, many with unique commentaries, that were unknown to scholars. Mr. Wallace says one of the rare, 10th century manuscripts they photographed was in a private collection and was later sold, page by page, for $1,000 a piece. Others are simply disintegrating, eaten away by rats and worms, or rotting.
A cascade of groundbreaking discoveries in the past decade, unleashed by new technology, has stoked the sense of urgency. Multispectral imaging — originally developed by NASA to capture satellite images through clouds — has proved remarkably effective on everything from ancient papyrus scrolls to medieval manuscripts that were scraped off and written over when scribes recycled parchment pages. Using the technique, which captures high-resolution images in different light wavelengths, scholars can see details invisible to the naked eye: For example, infrared light highlights ink containing carbon from crushed charcoal, while ultraviolet light picks up ink containing iron.
Researchers in Baltimore discovered a veritable library of ancient texts hidden in the pages of a single 13th-century Greek prayer book, including an unknown commentary on Aristotle and two missing treatises by the Greek mathematician Archimedes.
Allen Brisson-Smith for The Wall Street Journal
Father Columba Stewart holds a 19th century Ethiopian prayer scroll.
Recently, multispectral imaging has gotten much less expensive, allowing researchers to take their equipment into the field. The next frontier, researchers say, is using CAT scan and X-ray technology to read brittle scrolls without even unrolling them.
This summer, a new project to decode ancient manuscripts with multispectral imaging will begin at the University of Michigan, Berkeley, and Columbia. The project, led by scholars from Brigham Young, will scan 400 papyrus pieces. Among the specimens: papyrus fragments from rolls that were stuffed inside mummified Egyptian crocodiles in the 1st century B.C., which are thought to contain ancient legal documents, contracts and perhaps literary works. Their efforts could reveal text that scholars have been laboring to read for decades, including a partially obscured play by Euripides.
"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."
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.
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."
The British Library
Jane Austen's "History of England," hand-written by Austen in 1791 when she was 15. The work is an engaging parody of British history textbooks — Austen calls herself a "partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian."
The Library of Congress, 'American Memory'
The Library of Congress
This archive of American manuscripts, recordings, maps, films and images was launched in the mid-1990s and now contains about 15 million items.
The Library of Congress
The contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he was assassinated: includes watch fob, pocket knife, handkerchief and confederate five-dollar bill.
Four Walt Whitman notebooks, from the Library of Congress's collection of Walt Whitman papers dating from 1842 to 1937, which includes poetry, prose, proofs and correspondence.
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.
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.
The World Digital Library
Christopher Columbus's diary from 1493, in which the explorer describes the lands he discovered, from the Center for the Study of the History of Mexico Carso.
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 Palimpsest
Researchers 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 Papyri
This 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.
Portions 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.