CADBURY RESEARCH LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM
Shown are fragments of what could be the world’s oldest Koran.
Using a powerful X-ray procedure, researchers led by Vito Mocella, a physicist from the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, have for the first time been able to read letters hidden inside two carbonized papyri without unrolling them. Until now it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques.Read the full story here.
The papyrus scroll was reduced to lumps of coal by the 750-degree Fahrenheit cloud that wrapped the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was excavated 260 years ago from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, a magnificent seafront estate thought to be owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar's father-in-law.
Erik Anderson/Wikimedia Commons.
The Villa of the Papyri was the largest Roman villa ever found. It was recreated in the 1970s in California by Paul Getty, whose art museum in Malibu is a replica of how the villa is thought to have looked. It stretched down toward the sea on four terraces. The villa housed one of the finest libraries of antiquity. The scrolls consisted mainly of Epicurean philosophical texts and were carefully stored in shelves covering the walls.
During the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the scrolls, as well as the Herculaneum citizens, were burned by a furnace-like blast of hot gas. The tremendous pressure of the pyroclastic material compressed the scrolls and even deformed some of the villa's walls.
Bibliothèque de l'Institut de France
Paradoxically preserved forever (Herculaneum's seaside air would have destroyed them) the scrolls now consist of the only library items known to have survived the ancient world. Out of the 1,785 scrolls discovered during the 18th century excavation, only 585 had been completely unrolled using a 18th century mechanical method while 209 have been partly unrolled. About 400 have never been unrolled and 450 are so difficult to read that their text remains unknown.
Until now, it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques. To overcome the problem, Mocella and colleagues turned to X-ray phase contrast tomography (XPCT). The technology takes advantage of subtle differences in the way X-rays pass through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink. The team examined two scrolls (one unrolled and the other still rolled-up) which were handed to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift in 1802 and now belong to the collection of the Institut de France. On the unrolled scroll the researchers identified two words written in several superposed layers of papyrus. On one of the hidden layers, the sequence of Greek capital letters PIPTOIE, possibly meaning "would fall," could be read, while another sequence, EIPOI, meaning "would say," was spotted in the following line.
But the main object in the investigation was a carbonized, sausage-shaped, rolled-up papyrus. During the eruption, the scroll suffered a devastating shock, which deformed its internal spiral structure, as this rendition of the reconstructed papyrus shows. The letters were distorted, making data analysis a real challenge.
Nevertheless, the scanner was able to pick out all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. The researchers not only identified some words such as "deny," "for," "the," "to move," but also pinpointed a specific handwriting style, which led to the likely author, the Greek philosopher and poet Philodemus.
"While our ﬁrst experiments have revealed only small segments of writing and are in need of further reﬁnement, we note that once the XPCT technique has been tuned, the imaging of an entire papyrus scroll should not require more than a few hours of synchrotron beam time," the researchers said. New experiments are scheduled for the spring. The researchers also hope to determine the chemical composition of the ink, which, according to ancient sources, was made of water, smoke residues and gum acacia.Read the full story here.
British scholars have suggested that fragments of the world's oldest known Koran, which were discovered last month, may predate the accepted founding date of Islam by the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
The Times of London reported that radiocarbon dating carried out by experts at the University of Oxford says the fragments were produced between the years 568 A.D. and 645 A.D. Muhammad is generally believed to have lived between 570 A.D. and 632 A.D. The man known to Muslims as The Prophet is thought to have founded Islam sometime after 610 A.D., with the first Muslim community established at Medina, in present-day Saudi Arabia, in 622 A.D.
"This gives more ground to what have been peripheral views of the Koran's genesis, like that Muhammad and his early followers used a text that was already in existence and shaped it to fit their own political and theological agenda, rather than Muhammad receiving a revelation from heaven," Keith Small of Oxford's Bodleian Library told the Times.
The two sheets of Islam's holy book were discovered in a library at the University of Birmingham in England, where they had been mistakenly bound in a Koran dating to the seventh century. They were part of a collection of 3,000 Middle Eastern texts gathered in Iraq in the 1920s.
Muslims scholars have disputed the idea that the Birmingham Koran predates Muhammad, with Mustafa Shah of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies telling the Times: "If anything, the manuscript has consolidated traditional accounts of the Koran's origins."
The first known formal text of the Koran was not assembled until 653 A.D. on the orders of Uthman, the third caliph, or leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad's death. Before that, however, fragments of the work had circulated through oral tradition, though parts of the work had also been written down on stones, leaves, parchment and bones. The fragments of the Birmingham Koran were written on either sheepskin or goatskin.
Small cautioned that the carbon dating was only done on the parchment in the fragments, and not the actual ink, but added "If the dates apply to the parchment and the ink, and the dates across the entire range apply, then the Koran — or at least portions of it — predates Mohammed, and moves back the years that an Arabic literary culture is in place well into the 500s."