Conversion is Dirty – 2300 Years Later (Part β of γ)

ScriptoriumTech / NewsLeave a Comment

by David Kelly

Aside from the pulp-story like beginning, the story of our project with the Integrating Digital Papyrology (IDP) initiative provides a fascinating case study in what happens to text over time. The time scale is exaggerated, but it provides a not-unfamiliar scenario for the kinds of things that can happen to text. Writers beware! The story includes composition errors, archiving inadequacies, data degradation, restoration procedures, translation, analysis, repurposing due to audience shifts, structuring, markup conversion, acceleration of publication methods – the works.

For myself, the excitement of this story focused on two moments in the Papyrology Room. The first came when one of the participants pulled a volume from the shelves and opened it. The book comprised a photographic reproduction of a scroll containing the original Constitution of Athens ( This is an artifact discovered in 1879 that may have been written by Aristotle or one of his students. I learned that of the 169 constitutions written by Aristotle and his students, this is the only one to survive. It survived because the back of it was used for tax records, which apparently were considered much more important than landmark documents in the history of human civilization. (History lesson: File your taxes on the backs of your most important documents.)

The second moment came when we were able to get up close with a papyrus that was being studied by a graduate student. Sandwiched between two sheets of glass, it was a grid of pounded papyrus reed fiber with significant deterioration, particularly in the areas where two soft sections of the reed matter intersected. Across this surface, approximately 1800 years old, you could see the neatly scribed, pale ink handwriting in ancient Greek.

NOTE: The following is a palimpsest on papyrus dating from between 350 and 351 A.D. This image is available from a web page titled “Declaration on oath (P.Duk.inv. 11 R),” This image is reproduced by kind permission of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Perkins Library at Duke University. All rights regarding the use of this image are governed by the copyright statements at this location: .

Palimpsest on Papyrus

I had a strange feeling that this was some kind of time machine. I could sense the brush of an ancient hand across the page, dabbing the surface with an inked, chisel-edged reed. I felt a mind present in the paper with something that needed to be said, not just 1800 years ago, but for a long, long time. Our host explained that this was a marriage contract that gave the groom the right to build on part of a monastery owned by the bride. It was an utterly singular object. More importantly, it seemed to capture something of the human spirit, holding it in a way that could speak across a huge arc of time.

This is not an experience I get very often at work.

Many steps in the story have to be reconstructed at this point. Documents were stored in jars and shelves in houses, temples, and government storage buildings. Libraries were sacked or burned for cultural reasons, reducing the number of copies of documents. Languages, cultures, and writing materials changed drastically over the centuries. Whole cities were lost and forgotten. Moisture, mold, fire and vermin had their way with the papyrus fibers. It is a wonder anything survived.

Then came late Medieval and early Renaissance times. Scholars like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola began translating and promoting works from ancient languages, making them available and relevant to the cultural changes leading to the Renaissance and the renewal of Western Civilization. Subsequent to the translations came corrections, commentary, and searches for definitive sources. The Renaissance accelerated scientific study, resulting in a revised sense of time based on geological observations. The change in the sense of time revived interest in ancient stories, such as Homer’s epics, which in turn led to archeological expeditions looking for evidence of the historical truths behind literature and other writings. Old cities were uncovered, and there, in the jars, shelves, and boxes where they had been waiting for centuries, were the fragile records of long forgotten humans.

Next installment: The story continues into present.

About the Author


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *