A large collection of previously illegible manuscripts from ancient Greece and Rome -- including works by Sophocles and Lucian -- is now readable for the first time in what has been called the "classical equivalent of finding the holy grail."
The manuscripts are being read through a "multi-spectral imaging process." Previously used to produce video images from satellites, the technique employs infra-red light to reveal ink that has faded beyond the naked eye's ability to detect it. Within the last week, a team at Oxford University -- working in collaboration with infra-red specialists from Brigham Young Unviersity -- has applied the technique to some of the thousands of papyrus scrolls known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (for the location in Egypt in which they were found). These scrolls were recovered from an ancient garbage dump in the late 19th century and have been stored in Oxford's Sackler Library for decades.
The process has already uncovered sections of Sophocles' Epigonoi (Progeny), a long-lost tragedy about the siege of Thebes, dating from the fifth century B.C.; part of a lost novel by Lucian (second century B.C.); mythological poetry by the first-century B.C. Greek poet Parthenios; and portions of Elegies, an epic poem by Archilochos describing events leading up to the Trojan War. It is believed that future discoveries may include works by Ovid and Aeschylus, and a series of Christian gospels that has been lost for 2000 years.
Some academics have predicted that the ability to read from the papyri could lead to a 20 percent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence and could as much as double the surviving body of lesser works. For more information about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, visit www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk.