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The Next Age of Discovery

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Fr. Columba Stewart of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, St. John's University

Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's University in Minnesota, is leading an effort to digitize more than 30,000 Eastern Christian texts.

Allen Brisson-Smith / The Wall Street Journal

Teams of computer scientists, conservationists, and scholars are rushing to digitally save and preserve the world's literary treasures. Advanced technology is enabling researchers to scan ancient texts that were previously unreadable due to fire damage, chemical erosion, being repainted, or simply being too fragile to unroll. Using X-ray florescence, multi-spectral imaging, and CAT scans, scholars can study these works for the first time and preserve them in a digital format.

This summer, a University of Kentucky computer science professor will test three-dimensional x-ray scanning on two papyrus scrolls from Pompeii, currently at the French National Institute in Paris. The scrolls were charred by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. and scholars have never been able to read or even open them. In another project, Oxford scholars will take high-resolution digital images in 14 light wavelengths to read pieces of papyrus that were found in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump. Researchers have digitized about 80 percent of the 500,000 fragments recovered, dating from the 2nd century B.C. to the 8th century A.D., including text fragments from unknown works by famous authors, lost gospels, and early Islamic manuscripts.

Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's Abbey and University in Minnesota, seeks to digitize some 30,000 endangered manuscripts within the Eastern Christian traditions. "You have these ancient Christian communities, there since the beginning of Christianity, which are evaporating," he says.

War and political instability in artifact-rich areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where uncountable numbers of artifacts have been lost to looting or destroyed, is a major motivator behind the effort to digitize rare documents. "It's being called a second Renaissance," says Todd Hickey, a curator of papyri at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's revealing things that we didn't have a hope of reading in the past."

From The Wall Street Journal
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