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Some manuscripts are in poor condition, like this worm-eaten, 17th-century Christian Arabic Book of Hours from Balamand Monastery, Lebanon. (Wayne Torborg)

In a 21st-century version of the age of discovery, teams of computer scientists, conservationists and scholars are fanning out across the globe in a race to digitize crumbling literary treasures.

In the process, they’re uncovering unexpected troves of new finds, including never-before-seen versions of the Christian Gospels, fragments of Greek poetry and commentaries on Aristotle. Improved technology is allowing researchers to scan ancient texts that were once unreadable — blackened in fires or by chemical erosion, painted over or simply too fragile to unroll. Now, scholars are studying these works with X-ray fluorescence, multispectral imaging used by NASA to photograph Mars and CAT scans used by medical technicians.

A Benedictine monk from Minnesota is scouring libraries in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Georgia for rare, ancient Christian manuscripts that are threatened by wars and black-market looters; so far, more than 16,500 of his finds have been digitized. This summer, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky plans to test 3-D X-ray scanning on two papyrus scrolls from Pompeii that were charred by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. Scholars have never before been able to read or even open the scrolls, which now sit in the French National Institute in Paris.

By taking high-resolution digital images in 14 different light wavelengths, ranging from infrared to ultraviolet, Oxford scholars are reading bits of papyrus that were discovered in 1898 in an ancient garbage dump in central Egypt. So far, researchers have digitized about 80% of the collection of 500,000 fragments, dating from the 2nd century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. The texts include fragments of unknown works by famous authors of antiquity, lost gospels and early Islamic manuscripts.

Among their latest findings: An alternate version of the Greek play Medea, later immortalized in a version by Euripides, on a darkened piece of papyrus, dated to the 2nd century A.D. In the newly discovered version — written by Greek playwright Neophron — Medea doesn’t kill her children, says Dirk Obbink, director of Oxford’s Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project.

War and political instability in artifact-rich regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where untold numbers of antiquities have been lost through looting and destruction, have ignited the push to digitize rare documents. Recent tragedies, such as the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, and the collapse this past March of the Cologne city archives in Germany, where conservationists are still working frantically to retrieve texts from the rain-soaked rubble, serve as reminders of how quickly cultural relics can be wiped out.

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Alexandra Alter
Wall Street Journal

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