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Yesterday we had a fascinating visit from Mike Toth, manager of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Mike had just stepped off a plane from Egypt, on his way back from a visit to St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai. In fact he was still wearing his dusty desert boots!

Mike is an expert in multi-spectral imaging, which is able to ‘recover’ faded and obiterated texts such as palimpsests. The process involves taking a series of digital images with different wavelengths of light, and then using computer algorithms to enhance particular characteristics of the imaged area. To be frank, that’s as far as my knowledge of the technology goes, but I do know that it has proved spectacularly effective in revealing the lost text of the famous Archimedes Palimpsest. The project website contains masses of technical information on the imaging process for those who are interested.

Palimpsests, by the way, are recycled manuscripts, typically on parchment, where the original text is scraped away and overwritten with a new text. Ink generally doesn’t soak into parchment in the way that it does with paper, but sits on the surface, so it can be erased relatively easily. Depending on how effectively the original text was obliterated, it may be visible to the naked eye underneath the later text, but unreadable under normal lighting conditions. Below is an example of a palimpsest from our collection of Coptic fragments. The horizontal text contains Coptic Prayers for the Departed. The Greek underwriting runs vertically.

Coptic Fragment 20, palimpsest.

We are very excited by the potential for using multi-spectral images on our own collections. With Mike Toth and colleagues from Classics and Ancient History at The University of Manchester – Dr Roberta Mazza, Prof. Peter Pormann and Prof. Stephen Todd –  we examined a number of palimpsests chosen by Elizabeth Gow from our Greek and Coptic papyri and parchment fragments, as well as medieval codices. Eventually we would like to develop our own multi-spectral imaging capability, but in the short term we hope that Mike will return Manchester later this year to demonstrate his equipment on some of our material. Then we hope to work with our academic colleagues to develop specific research projects that would benefit from this technology. Watch this space!

Thanks to Stephen Todd for organizing the event, and especially to Mike Toth for taking time out of his busy schedule to visit the Rylands.

Mike Toth (centre) examines Greek Papyrus 489, a leaf from a codex of Lysias, observed by Stephen Todd and Peter Pormann.

Dr Roberta Mazza (centre) shows Mike Toth Greek Papyrus 466.