Necrologophilia: The See-Through Edition

by Translation Guy on October 14, 2011

View the vodcast version of this post on the Translation Guy YouTube channel.

In my last post, “Necrologophilia, Digging Dead Languages” I pulled back the covers on those peculiar language fetishists fascinated by necrologophilia,those who in other words,  like their languages dead. We examined this “sandalous” behavior  with a high rez look at Google’s decision to roll out the Dead Sea Scrolls online for all to see, centuries after these precious parchments were jarred up in desert caves to hide them from prying Roman eyes.

Getting these shady scholastic passions into the public eye can only be a good thing. Surely the power of all those spying eyes on the Internet will only shed more light on the lost secrets of the past.

But there is some times more meaning in ancient parchment than meets the naked eye. This because those old sheepskins were pretty pricy back in the day, since they weren’t for sale by the ream at Staples, but by the flock at stables. How many pages to a sheep anyway?

At any rate, those old timers were big into recycling. Once a title started to get stale, or began to sound a little too pagan, the monks would give it a scrub with milk and oat bran to prep it for new writings. But over time, the old ink would begin to bleed through underneath the new ink. This under-text, called the scriptio inferior, was sometimes legible enough that scholars were able to make out these washed-up writings on overwritten parchments called palimpsests. 19th century scholars eventually became quite skilled at trashing these irreplaceable treasures with nasty chemicals like  tincture of gall and ammonium bisulfate.

So it really took modern photographic techniques to unlock the mystery of these overwritten writings. The Archimedes Palimpsest is a spectacular example of the spectrum of techniques now used by scholars to reveal secrets once thought lost forever.

Discovered by Johan Ludvig Heiberg in 1906 gathering dust in the library of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Istanbul, this last surviving work of the great Greek geometrist Archimedes had been scrubbed off and overwritten with a religious track by some mathematically challenged monk, then  singed by fire, dribbled with wax, smeared with glue, and ravaged by a purple fungus that ate right through its pages, making for scriptio super inferior.

But 100 years later, scientists at the John Hopkins and the Rochester Institute of Technology, photographed the images under different wavelengths of light, causing the spectral signature of the Archimedes ink to jump off the page. It took six years, although the last run, built on all the technical skills developed from previous passes, was completed in three weeks.

But now it looks as if palimpsest readers will be putting their cameras away. Multi-spectrum scanners are coming on line to decode those lines of previously hidden text. Mike Broderick, CEO of manufacturer Oxford Multi Spectral says “You have to use a camera in a dark room, it’s quite big and quite expensive, and manipulating delicate documents in a dark room is not the easiest thing to do,” says Broderick. “Once you close the lid on [the scanner] you trap the document, so you keep all the extraneous light away and you maintain perfect registration [alignment].”

Developed for imaging ancient papyri, the device has been used to scan, restore and archive more than a quarter of a million historically significant manuscripts so far. It’s also handy for spotting forgeries and counterfeits.

So in this age of multiple spectral signatures, it is no longer just Facebook where no secrets are safe. Even the mustiest mummies in the darkest of tombs need only be unwound for convenient flatbed scanning and full frontal exposure. They’ll be spinning in their graves. Did I say that was a good thing? OK. It’s a good thing.


  1. tballister says:

    If they could reccyle and reuse back then, why can’t most of us do it now?

  2. Cecil Conner says:

    Was that number correct? More than a quarter of a million have been restored and archived?

    • Ken says:

      That was the quote. I figured they are counting passport scans or something like that.

  3. I like that…scripto super inferior. I had to chuckle at that one.

  4. Ian Francis says:

    I should try the milk and oat bran scrub for my white board in my classroom :)

  5. Laurie Wall says:

    What is ticture of gall? Gallbladder juice? Bile? From what animal?

    • Ken says:

      Certain kinds of wasps inject growth hormones into Oaks to make a little next for their eggs.

  6. Elaine Hull says:

    Yeh, how does the old ink bleed through when it was scrubbed off? I would figure that it was just gone.

  7. Andrew says:

    In a movie or good book, I can see someone purposely writing over something that they didn’t want others to see. This makes sense.

  8. Kyle Barr says:

    I guess palimpsests are kind of like when painters painted over previous works they got bored looking at.

  9. Lloyd Werner says:

    Scraped clean and used again. Awesome.

  10. Nathan Moser says:

    Wow, technology and the things people can do. You would figure that by scrubbing something that not only the ink would disappear, but also some of the fabric that held the ink. Amazing they can still read it.

  11. Judy Schultz says:

    I once used an electron microsope and I thought it was the coolest thing. These scanners must really be an adreneline rush when something special is uncovered.

  12. Alice Shah says:

    Interesting to note that the parchment (animal hides) were primarily used for palimpsest. I imagine the paypyrus would have fallen apart much easier.

  13. Ruth Clark says:

    Yes, science and technological advances in this is amazing. And the great thing is that the samples don’t have to be destroyed when looking at them.

  14. Eleanor says:

    Maybe we could cut the unemployment rate by employing thousands to translate these restored writings?

  15. How does something from a historically important figure get lost until 1906? And how was it found? Byaccident or was Johan Heiberg looking for it?

  16. Now I get the caption under the Archimedes image. It was hidden because it had been written over and it has come to light because of the multispectrum scanner.

  17. Archimedes was quite the guy. I would put him up there with Da Vinci as far as intelligence.

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