New techniques shed light on ancient codex & palimpsests

Read an article the other day from New York Times, A fragile biblical text gets a virtual read about an approach to use detailed CT scans combined with X-rays to read text on a codex (double sided, hand bound book) that’s been mashed together for ~1500 years.

How to read a codex

Dr. Seales created the technology and has used it successfully to read a small charred chunk of material that was a copy of the earliest known version of the Masoretic text, the authoritative Hebrew bible.

However, that only had text on one side. A codex is double sided and being able to distinguish between which side of a piece of papyrus or parchment was yet another level of granularity.

The approach uses X-ray scanning to triangulate where sides of the codex pages are with respect to the material and then uses detailed CT scans to read the ink of the letters of the text in space. Together, the two techniques can read letters and place them on sides of a codex.

Apparently the key to the technique was in creating software could model the surfaces of a codex or other contorted pieces of papyrus/parchment and combining that with the X-ray scans to determine where in space the sides of the papyrus/parchment resided. Then when the CT scans revealed letters in planar scans (space), they could be properly placed on sides of the codex and in sequence to be literally read.

M.910, an unreadable codex

In the article, Dr. Seales and team were testing the technique on a codex written sometime between 400 and 600AD that contained the Acts of the Apostles and one of the books of the New Testament and possibly another book.

The pages had been merged together by a cinder that burned through much of the book. Most famous codexes are named but this one was only known as M.910 for the 910th acquisition of the Morgan Library.

M.910 was so fragile that it couldn’t be moved from the library. So the team had to use a portable CT scanner and X-ray machine to scan the codex.

The scans for M.910 were completed this past December and the team should start producing (Coptic) readable pages later this month.

Reading Palimpsests

A palimpsests is a manuscript on which the original writing has been obscured or erased. Another article from UCLA Library News, Lost ancient texts recovered and published online,  that talks about the use of multi-wave length spectral imaging to reveal text and figures that have been erased or obscured from Sinai Palimpsests.  The texts can be read at and total 6800 pages in 10 languages.

In this case the text had been deliberately erased or obscured to reuse parchment or papyrus. The writings are from the 5th to 12th centuries.  The texts were located in St. Catherine’s Monastary and access to it’s collection of ancient and medieval manuscripts is considered 2nd only to that in the Vatican Library.


There are many damaged codexes scurried away in libraries throughout the world today but up until now they were mere curiosities. If successful, this new technique will enable scholars to read their text, translate them and make them available for researchers and the rest of the world to read and understand.

Now if someone could just read my WordPerfect files from 1990’s and SCRIPT/VS files from 1980’s I’d be happy.


Picture credit(s): From NY Times article by Nicole Craine 

Acts of apostles codex

From Sinai Palimpsests Project website

Tape v Disk v SSD v RAM

There was a time not long ago when the title of this post wouldn’t have included SSD. But, with the history of the last couple of years, SSD has earned its right to be included.

A couple of years back I was at a Rocky Mountain Magnetics Seminar (see IEEE magnetics societies) and a disk drive technologist stated that Disks have about another 25 years of technology roadmap ahead of them. During this time they will continue to increase density, throughput and other performance metrics. After 25 years of this they will run up against some theoretical limits which will halt further density progress.

At the same seminar, the presenter said that Tape was lagging Disk technology by about 5-10 years or so. As such, tape should continue to advance for another 5-10 years after disk stops improving at which time tape would also stop increasing density.

Does all this mean the end of tape and disk? I think not. Paper stopped advancing in density theoretically about 2 to 3000 years ago (the papyrus scroll was the ultimate in paper “rotating media”). If we move up to the codex or book form- which in my view is a form factor advance – this took place around 400AD (see history of scroll and codex). Paperback, another form factor advance, took place in the early 20th century (see paperback history).

Turning now to write performance, moveable type was a significant paper (write) performance improvement and started in the mid 15th century. The printing press would go on to improve (paper write) performance for the next six centuries (see printing press history) and continues today.

All this indicates that some data technology, whose density was capped over 2000 years ago, can continue to advance and support valuable activity in today’s world and for the foreseeable future. “Will disk and tape go away” is the wrong question, the right question is “can disk or tape, after SSDs reach price equivalence on a $/GB basis, still be useful to the world”?

I think yes, but that depends on a number of factors as to how the relative SSD-Disk-Tape technologies advance. Assuming someday all these technologies support equivalent Tb/SqIn or spatial density and

  • SSD’s retain their relative advantage in random access speed,
  • Tape it’s advantage in sequential throughput, volumetric density, and long media life, and
  • Disk it’s all around, combined sequential and random access advantage

It seems likely that each can sustain some niche in the data center/home office of tomorrow, although probably not where they are today.

One can see trends being enacted in the enterprise data centers today that are altering the relative positioning of SSDs, disks and tape. Tape is now being relegated to long term, archive storage, Disk is moving to medium-term, secondary storage and SSDs is replacing top tier, primary storage.

More thoughts on this in future posts.