Uncovering Ancient Texts in Palimpsests at Saint Catherine’s Monastery

This post is in honor of World Storytelling Day, a global celebration of the art of storytelling and that’s pretty much our favorite thing to do at Mused.

View from the Saint Catherine’s Monastery Museum. Visit the museum virtually.

The theme for 2022 is “Lost and Found”, which reminds us of the Palimpsest of St. Catherine’s Monastery and the secret texts revealed by researchers.

30v-33r from the Archimedes Palimpsest project website. View the originals.

Before the wide-spread use of paper, scribes wrote on parchment, which was very durable but expensive. So, it became common practice to reuse pieces of parchment and many important historical texts were lost, buried beneath the new writing.

049v-052r from the Digital Galen project website. View the originals.

However, with modern technologies researches have been able to uncover the original texts underneath.

161v-156r from the Archimedes Palimpsest website. View the originals.

St. Catherine’s Monastery has one of the world’s largest collections of these reused texts (palimpsests) and have made some incredible discoveries including:

  • One of the earliest known Quranic manuscripts
  • Writings by Archimedes that were previously thought to be lost
  • Two previously unknown classical Greek medical texts
  • Earliest surviving copies of several texts from the Hippocratic corpus, a collection of Greek medical texts

Here are a few more examples of palimpsests being uncovered by the multispectral laser technology pioneered by the researchers at the monastery.

102v-098r from the Archimedes Palimpsest website. View the originals.

148r-141v from the Archimedes Palimpsest website. View the originals

147v-142r from the Archimedes Palimpsest website. View the originals.

To understand more about what a palimpsest is and how researchers interpret these today to gain understanding about new texts, visit the “What is a Palimpsest” story. And after check out the stories and videos on the Saint Catherine’s Exhibition where we tell the story of how these elusive, ancient texts were lost…and found!

Also learn more about the project and uncovering the hidden texts in the manuscripts by visiting sinaipalimpsests.org. The Sinai Palimpsests Project is a joint project by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, UCLA Library, and the Arcadia Foundation.

The manuscripts imaged here were published on the Archimedes Palimpsest and Digital Galen websites. In order of appearance, you can see them for yourself at these links:

Last but not least, if you’re interested in more digital exhibitions and visual storytelling for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums around the world, enter your email address below and click “Subscribe”.

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