Hidden Ancient Greek Medical Text Read for the First Time in a Thousand Years — with a Particle Accelerator

Image by Far­rin Abbott/SLAC, via Flickr Com­mons

Long before human­i­ty had paper to write on, we had papyrus. Made of the pith of the wet­land plant Cype­r­us papyrus and first used in ancient Egypt, it made for quite a step up in terms of con­ve­nience from, say, the stone tablet. And not only could you write on it, you could rewrite on it. In that sense it was less the paper of its day than the first-gen­er­a­tion video tape: giv­en the expense of the stuff, it often made sense to erase the con­tent already writ­ten on a piece of papyrus in order to record some­thing more time­ly. But you could­n’t com­plete­ly oblit­er­ate the pre­vi­ous lay­ers of text, a fact that has long held out promise to schol­ars of ancient his­to­ry look­ing to expand their field of pri­ma­ry sources.

The decid­ed­ly non-ancient solu­tion: par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tors. Researchers at the Stan­ford Syn­chro­tron Radi­a­tion Light­source (SSRL) recent­ly used one to find the hid­den text in what’s now called the Syr­i­ac Galen Palimpsest. It con­tains, some­where deep in its pages, “On the Mix­tures and Pow­ers of Sim­ple Drugs,” an “impor­tant phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal text that would help edu­cate fel­low Greek-Roman doc­tors,” writes Aman­da Sol­l­i­day at the SLAC Nation­al Accel­er­a­tor Lab­o­ra­to­ry.

Orig­i­nal­ly com­posed by Galen of Perg­a­mon, “an influ­en­tial physi­cian and a philoso­pher of ear­ly West­ern med­i­cine,” the work made its way into the 6th-cen­tu­ry Islam­ic world through a trans­la­tion into a lan­guage between Greek and Ara­bic called Syr­i­ac.

Image by Far­rin Abbott/SLAC, via Flickr Com­mons

Alas, “despite the physician’s fame, the most com­plete sur­viv­ing ver­sion of the trans­lat­ed man­u­script was erased and writ­ten over with hymns in the 11th cen­tu­ry – a com­mon prac­tice at the time.” Palimpsest, the word coined to describe such texts writ­ten, erased, and writ­ten over on pre-paper mate­ri­als like papyrus and parch­ment, has long since had a place in the lex­i­con as a metaphor for any­thing long-his­to­ried, mul­ti-lay­ered, and ful­ly under­stand­able only with effort. The Stan­ford team’s effort involved a tech­nique called X‑ray flu­o­res­cence (XRF), whose rays “knock out elec­trons close to the nuclei of met­al atoms, and these holes are filled with out­er elec­trons result­ing in char­ac­ter­is­tic X‑ray flu­o­res­cence that can be picked up by a sen­si­tive detec­tor.”

Those rays “pen­e­trate through lay­ers of text and cal­ci­um, and the hid­den Galen text and the new­er reli­gious text flu­o­resce in slight­ly dif­fer­ent ways because their inks con­tain dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of met­als such as iron, zinc, mer­cury and cop­per.” Each of the leather-bound book’s 26 pages takes ten hours to scan, and the enor­mous amounts of new data col­lect­ed will pre­sum­ably occu­py a vari­ety of experts on the ancient world — on the Greek and Islam­ic civ­i­liza­tions, on their lan­guages, on their med­i­cine — for much longer there­after. But you do have to won­der: what kind of unimag­in­ably advanced tech­nol­o­gy will our descen­dants a mil­len­ni­um and a half years from now be using to read all of the stuff we thought we’d erased?

via SLAC

Relat­ed Con­tent:

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

The Turin Erot­ic Papyrus: The Old­est Known Depic­tion of Human Sex­u­al­i­ty (Cir­ca 1150 B.C.E.)

Try the Old­est Known Recipe For Tooth­paste: From Ancient Egypt, Cir­ca the 4th Cen­tu­ry BC

Learn Ancient Greek in 64 Free Lessons: A Free Course from Bran­deis & Har­vard

Intro­duc­tion to Ancient Greek His­to­ry: A Free Online Course from Yale

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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