Palimpsests at Saint Catherine’s.

Richard Gray at the Atlantic writes about a perennially interesting topic:

The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continually operating library in the world. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. These illegible marks are the only clues to words that were scraped away by the monastery’s monks between the 8th and 12th centuries to reuse the parchments. Some were written in long-lost languages that have almost entirely vanished from the historical record. […]

Over five years, the researchers gathered 30 terabytes of images from 74 palimpsests—totaling 6,800 pages. In some cases, the erased texts have increased the known vocabulary of a language by up to 50 percent, giving new hope to linguists trying to decipher them. One of the languages to reemerge from the parchments is Caucasian Albanian, which was spoken by a Christian kingdom in what is now modern day Azerbaijan. Almost all written records from the kingdom were lost in the 8th and 9th century when its churches were destroyed.

“There are two palimpsests here that have Caucasian Albanian text in the erased layer,” says Michael Phelps, the director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and leader of the project. “They are the only two texts that survive in this language … We were sitting with one of the scholars and he was adding to the language as we were processing the images. In real time he was saying ‘now we have the word for met’ and ‘now the word for fish.’”

Another dead language to be found in the palimpsests is one used by some of the earliest Christian communities in the Middle East. Known as Christian Palestinian Aramaic, it is a strange mix of Syriac and Greek that died out in the 13th century. Some of the earliest versions of the New Testament were written in this language. “This was an entire community of people who had a literature, art, and spirituality,” says Phelps. “Almost all of that has been lost, yet their cultural DNA exists in our culture today. These palimpsest texts are giving them a voice again and letting us learn about how they contributed to who we are today.”

I look forward to many more such discoveries. Thanks, Ryan!

Comments

  1. And English, I suppose, is a strange mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French. But at least we need not read palimpsests to learn it.

  2. Quite satisfying to hear of this analysis of ancient palympsets, which saved data by accident.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    the erased texts have increased the known vocabulary of a language by up to 50 percent,

    Say from two to three words? Percentages are not really suitable for this sort of information.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    Athel C.-B.:Say from two to three words?

    This suggests somewhat more than 50%:

    “There are two palimpsests here that have Caucasian Albanian text in the erased layer,” says Michael Phelps, the director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and leader of the project. “They are the only two texts that survive in this language …

    But maybe “only” is hyperbole. I wondered how they could know that this is Caucasian Albanian if these are the only texts.

  5. Two manuscripts published in 2009 include Caucasian Albanian translations of Gospel of John and so called lectionaries (fragments of Gospels to be used in liturgies), in total about 120 pages of text.

    That’s more than the data which survived from Gothic, I believe.

  6. -I wondered how they could know that this is Caucasian Albanian if these are the only texts.

    Caucasian Albanian had distinct script and most of its signs were known since 1940s. Also some words and grammatical information about Albanian survived in Armenian chronicles.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    On top of that, what’s known is closely related to the extant (though endangered) Udi language, spoken in a few villages in Azerbaijan by Christians who have their own Orthodox church hierarchy…

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Athel C.-B.:Say from two to three words?

    This suggests somewhat more than 50%:

    “There are two palimpsests here that have Caucasian Albanian text in the …

    Yes, my reductio ad absurdum was to illustrate the point that we need counts, not percentages. 1000 to 1500 would be very impressive; 100 to 150 would be very good; 10 to 15 might be useful; 2 to 3 would probably not be worth reporting (not like that, anyway).

  9. marie-lucie says:

    We were sitting with one of the scholars and he was adding to the language as we were processing the images. In real time he was saying ‘now we have the word for met’ and ‘now the word for fish.’”

    Perhaps some people interpreted this as meaning that these were the only two words “rescued” from the palimpsests, rather than examples of what the scholars were finding among other features of the language.

Speak Your Mind

*