Reconstructing Manuscripts Using Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy

Professor Carsten P. Thiede
Report by ©Peter Parry, on the introduction to Prof. C. Thiede’s paper at the Geneva Tyndale Conference, October 2001.

Carsten P. Thiede gave what he called an ‘amuse-bouche’ (appetiser) as an introduction to his Tyndale presentation which he entitled ‘The Hard Work of Textual Criticism’. This took us into the realms of working on manuscripts using a method called ‘Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy’, which is normally applied in biological research, but which he has helped pioneer in its archaeological applications using equipment installed at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. The technique permits the analysis of manuscripts so badly damaged as to be otherwise unusable in whole or in part. It is currently being used on the Dead Sea Scrolls particularly where they have been subjected to physical or organic damage such as attack by fungi.

It is now possible to reconstruct original letters that have long since disappeared from the surface. There are also many manuscripts where the text is highly controversial or where it is impossible to say, with accuracy, what the actual text was. It may be that some or all of the ink has disappeared. Now we can reconstruct what some, at least, of those those apparently lost letters actually were.

Using this new technique up to 19 levels can be distinguished on any organic writing material. Ink can be found where nobody has seen it before, and even when it has gone; the microscope is often able to find the imprint left by the writing instrument of the scribe. This imprint can be measured and the direction the pen or stylus took in forming each letter can be determined. Furthermore, the technique allows one to distinguish between ink and stains made up of microscopic fungi which attack the papyrus when it has not been properly conserved. Ink can also be distinguished from other foreign material, such as dust and dirt. Hence it is possible to reconstruct each individual letter. The capability exists to discern the text on documents long since thought not to contain any valuable information, and in other cases, by correctly reconstructing doubtful letters, to avoid an incorrect exegesis of the texts.

Carsten Thiede then went on, with the aid of slides and with the participants wearing special 3D enabling glasses, to demonstrate the techniques he employs. Using a Septuagint manuscript of a Psalm, we were shown a piece of text, of a Dead Sea Scroll papyrus, initially without 3D images. First examination seemed to show that the writer marked a letter with a small sign of the Cross in one corner. Could this have been written by a Christian scribe marking a letter of this Old Testament text in the way that the printers of the Tyndale Bible left their marks on their typefaces? Slides showing an ordinary view of the letter would seem to support the possibility that, indeed, this could have been made by an early Christian. However, applying the microscopy techniques and using 3D images it was possible to see, in the lower layers of the material, that fibres had been dislocated and had formed a cross. Clearly this was not done intentionally by the writer.

Taking the analysis further, and reconstructing the likely extent of the surface ink, it is possible to see what the missing parts of the letters are suppose to be and in this way to recover the text of the scroll. We were shown a number of examples of the recovery of letters and text from fragmented and damaged manuscripts. However, Carsten Thiede emphasised that these techniques do not give a carte blanche for manuscripts not to be kept in proper protective environments. But it does allow documents to be resealed for subsequent storage, before they are damaged beyond the point of no return. The door has been opened to enrich our knowledge of ancient text further than has been thought possible up until now.

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