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