Lost ancient texts recovered and published online through international partnership

Previously unknown classical Greek mythological and medical works, newly discovered classical scientific texts preserved only in Syriac translation, religious writings in extinct languages, an ancient Christian poem describing Old Testament figures in Homeric style and detailed illustrations of plants, buildings and people have re-emerged for the first time in centuries through the Sinai Palimpsests Project.

The five-year collaboration is the largest effort of its kind to recover erased or obscured information from historical source material. Seventy-four palimpsests totaling some 6,800 pages in 10 languages contain erased layers of writing from the fifth to the 12th centuries. They are accessible to students, scholars and the public at sinaipalimpsests.org.

“By revealing these long-hidden materials and preserving them for future generations, this project makes possible advanced research and scholarship by scholars around the world,” said UCLA Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian Ginny Steel. “We are extremely grateful to Arcadia for its visionary support of this international effort.”

A UNESCO World Heritage site located in a region that is sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, St. Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world. Access to its collection of ancient and medieval manuscripts, considered second only to that of the Vatican Library, has often been difficult due to its remoteness and the region’s volatile political climate. In addition to revealing hidden content and making it accessible, this project has also preserved these fragile materials.

Anthea Case, principal adviser to the Arcadia Fund, says, “We are enormously proud to have supported the project at St Catherine’s Monastery from its very beginning to successful completion.”

Among the palimpsests are texts in Ethiopic and Latin, demonstrating the monastery’s centrality in the world of medieval Christendom; previously unknown texts in the extinct language Christian Palestinian Aramaic, including a newly discovered story of an early Christian martyr; and early biblical texts in numerous languages.

There are also the earliest surviving copies of several Hippocratic medical treatises and a previously unknown mythological poem from ancient Greece that mentions Zeus, Hades, Hera, Hermes and Persephone. In addition to the oldest surviving illustration in a secular Latin manuscript, illustrations include medicinal herbs, human faces and figures and portions of buildings. There are a number of double palimpsests from parchment that was re-used multiple times.

Michael Phelps, EMEL project director, states, “With the gracious collaboration of the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery, this project has not only recovered individual texts of historical significance; it is also restoring the voices of whose literatures have been mostly lost.”

The spectral imaging process involves illuminating a manuscript with successive wavelengths of light from ultraviolet through the visible spectrum to infrared. The raw data is then processed to generate derivative images that maximize the legibility of erased content. The UCLA Library previously partnered with an international team on a similar project focused on the papers of the famous explorer David Livingston.

Arcadia Fund is a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Arcadia serves humanity by preserving endangered cultural heritage and ecosystems. Because knowledge should belong to all, Arcadia also promotes open access, seeking to make information available without barriers of cost or distance.

Arcadia has a history of support for education and research at UCLA. Its major gifts to the Library include $5 million to support transformative change in print and digital collections and $3.4 million to capture and provide online access to international ephemeral materials.

As one of the world’s leading research libraries, the UCLA Library is globally recognized as an innovator in library collections and services. Last year, more than 20 million people accessed the UCLA Library’s digital and online resources, which now include the largest collection of spectral images in the world. By preserving global cultural heritage, the Library fuels the transfer of knowledge across generations and around the world.

EMEL uses digital technologies to preserve and provide access to ancient and medieval manuscripts.  It specializes in the design of systems to support fragile manuscripts during digitization and in the recovery of text from damaged, deteriorated or erased manuscripts.  Arcadia provided EMEL a grant of $2.1 million in support of this collaboration with St. Catherine’s Monastery to recover erased texts among its many palimpsests.

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