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Researchers “see” writing hidden on the back of an ancient philosophical text

By 6th October 2019 October 8th, 2019 No Comments

Researchers from France, Italy, Germany and Russia have discovered portions of Greek text hidden on the back of an ancient scroll discovered in the 18th century using a technique called shortwave-infrared hyperspectral imaging, which involves collecting and processing of hundreds of narrow spectral band images between 1000 and 2500 nm in wavelength. The result confirms how good this imaging technique is for reading text on the reverse side of the Herculaneum papyri scrolls, which have been mounted on a support, and for reading the writing on the front of the scrolls.


Scanning the papyrus. Credit: A. Tournié, Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation

Although 18th-century drawings suggested the existence of writing on the back of the papyri, scholars were unable to remove the scrolls from the paperboard to which they are permanently glued because this would have been painstaking difficult and could have damaged the scrolls. The team applied shortwave-infrared hyperspectral imaging to the most famous scroll, which contains text from the philosophical work History of the Academy by Philodemus, thus demonstrating that it was better compared to previous imaging conducted at 950 nm.

The researchers, reporting their work in Science Advancesselected a passage in which scholars had identified the word “charmed” or “bewitched,” showing clearly with their improved resolution that the word was actually “enslaved.” While the technique produces better contrast than imaging at 950 nm, the researchers say it does, however, sometimes mistakes holes and thin fractures or wrinkles for ink. They note that this issue could be resolved in the future by using a lens with a spatial resolution of about 100 microns.

The French members of the team are from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation, both in Paris.

Read the research paper: Ancient Greek text concealed on the back of unrolled papyrus revealed through shortwave-infrared hyperspectral imaging by A. Tournié et al. Science Advances.

Materials provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).