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  • Bringing Antiquities to Light

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2005
The Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection is a treasure trove of trash salvaged in the late 19th century from huge rubbish mounds in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and stored at Oxford University in the UK. The papyrus documents number some 400,000 fragments of text in Greek and other ancient languages. The archive is a priceless record of antiquity, including everything from dinner invitations and shopping lists to early biblical texts to classical manuscripts by Sophocles, Hesiod, Euripides and other giants of ancient literature and scholarship.

The problem is that 1700 years have taken their toll, and a large portion of the collection is illegible. Ongoing but painstakingly slow efforts to decipher the material recently gained considerable momentum through the use of multispectral imaging. Oxford scholars have teamed with engineers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to digitally capture samples at different wavelengths, using infrared and ultraviolet filters to maximize the contrast of the faded ink against the often-ravaged background material.

The researchers have enthusiastically reported that the technology makes almost 20 percent more of the writing intelligible, recovering priceless reads from the ancient reeds.

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