New Technology Lets Scholars Read an Ancient Text

Jan 23, 2018

Although it goes by the humble name "M.910," an ancient manuscript book knows as a "codex" at the Morgan Library in New York City is on its way to a high-tech adventure.  Written in Coptic script by monks somewhere between 400 and 600 A.D., scholars such as the University of Iowa's Paul Dilley are excited that it may soon become legible for the first time.

Being able to read this fragile codex, which has been shut tight with heat damage from long ago, has been the goal of the staff at the Morgan Library since the the manuscript was acquired in the early 1960s.  Using an X-ray scanner provided by Mircro Photonics Inc., the images of the codex are currently being processed by Prof. Brent Seales and his team from the University of Kentucky. 

Because M.910 is written on both sides and is fused together, the expertise of the University of Iowa's Paul Dilley, an assistant professor of ancient Mediterranean religions, will be used as the final step in actually being able to read the codex, which is an early version of the Acts of the Apostles.  Dilley told IPR's Charity Nebbe that his task will be to determine where the letters actually go, which would have been a lot easier if M.910 had simply been a scroll with the writing on one side only.

Any day now, the X-ray results will be on Dilley's desk in Iowa City and his work will begin.  Even though M.910 may not have anything dramatically new to offer scholars, the excitement, Dilley told us, will be to use the new scanning technology on other ancient writings which have been impossible to read up to now, such as a number of scrolls unearthed in Herculaneum, badly damaged by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. 

Dilley is also the author of a new book published by Cambridge, "Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity: Cognition and Discipline."