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High-Powered X-Rays Reveal What’s Beneath 11th-Century Religious Text

The hidden text is a translation of ancient Greek medical philosopher Galen’s writing

Scientists are using high-powered X-rays to reveal a hidden text beneath a 10th century religious text. (Mike Toth/R.B. Toth Associates/ Flickr)
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When Ancient Egypt’s Library of Alexandria went up in flames, some of the world’s most important texts and accounts were permanently lost to history. But as modern technology continues to improve, there's new hope for recovering other ancient works (so long as they haven't literally been burnt to a crisp).

As Ryan F. Mandelbaum reports for Gizmodo, scientists are now using high-powered X-rays generated by a particle accelerator to reveal a translated text of the ancient Greek medical philosopher Galen.

As Live Science’s Rafi Letzter explains, the timeline of the book’s history dates back an estimated 1800 years, when Galen first recorded his medical text, including studies of anatomy and treatments such as bloodletting. Some 300 years later, someone translated that treatise into the ancient language of Syriac. But those words were eventually rendered invisible in the 11th century when the text was written over with Christian psalms.

That book of psalms surfaced in Germany in the early 1900s, and was later traced back to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula (where researchers believe the medical treastise was first written in Syriac during that window from 500 C.E. to 600 C.E.).

For nearly 10 years, researchers have been unsuccessfully trying a number of different methods to reveal the text hidden underneath, including the use of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths, reports Peter Dockrill for Science Alert. Results, however, appear to be on the horizon now that the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which is operated by Stanford University, has stepped in.

Using a particle accelerator called the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), which produces bright X-rays, researchers have finally been able to peek through the newer ink to reveal Galen’s words.

Essentially, as Michael B. Toth, of R.B. Toth Associates, who is working with the Stanford researchers, explains to CBS SF, the 11th-century document scraped off the original text, turned the book sideways and then rewrote it as a book of psalms for the days of the week.

Some of the text had been so effectively scrubbed off that not all of the original writings has yet been revealed, the lab tells Letzter. Currently, all 26 pages of the book are undergoing 10 hours’ worth of scanning.

When the work is complete, researchers say they will post the hidden text online, rendering the invisible text visible once more.

X-Ray Texts 2.jpg
Scientists are using high-powered X-rays to reveal a hidden text beneath a 10th century religious text. (Farrin Abbott/SLAC/ Flickr)
About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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