Even more exciting? There are thousands and thousands of books sitting in libraries, personal collections, and book stores ripe for this treatment.
What’s new here is the technology. Scholars have known for a long time that early modern book production used cartonnage (layers of linen or papyrus) composed of fragments of older discarded manuscripts to strengthen the bindings of books. Kwakkel told The Guardian that as many as one in five books produced between the 15th and 18th centuries was made this way. The same technique was used seventeen hundred years earlier by Egyptians, who used manuscripts as papier mache to construct mummy masks for use in the burial of the dead. We knew the documents were hidden in the bindings of the books, but getting them out meant dismantling or destroying ancient historical artifacts.
This new technology, though, allows scholars to read the fragments in the bindings without dismantling the books themselves. It uses macro x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (MA-XRF) to detect iron, copper, and zinc in the medieval ink. Professor Joris Dik, of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, developed this new process. In 2011 he used it to discover a previously unknown self-portrait of Rembrandt underneath another work. The discovery cleared up the questions that surrounded the painting’s attribution and value.
A similar technique was developed last year when Vito Mocella and other scientists based at the National Research Council in Naples used a procedure known as x-ray phase contrast tomography (XPCT) to read scrolls from Herculaneum that had been damaged by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Both technologies represent major advances in the field. They allow us to read previously unreadable texts without destroying the containers in which they are housed.
Until now, the knowledge that ancient manuscripts were used to make cartonnage has presented an ethical quandary to scholars. Books and other artifacts have been destroyed in the hopes of discovering something more precious hidden inside. The stakes are even higher when it comes to Egyptian mummy masks because there are comparably few ancient manuscripts, and certain texts—Plato, the Bible, and Homer—are culturally and financially viable to Westerners. The oldest Ptolemaic fragment of the Odyssey (currently on display at the Met) was retrieved from the cartonnage of a mummy mask. Rumors that mummy masks contain the earliest fragments of the Bible has led some evangelicals to dismantle them at church-sponsored events.
While the mummy masks that have already been destroyed were rarely of museum quality (we’re not talking King Tut here), there is still something colonialistic about European and American scholars destroying 2,000-year-old Egyptian artifacts in the hopes of finding manuscripts that are important to certain groups today. Even when the process is well documented, the question of who gets to decide what to dismantle is a fraught one. But now no one has to choose.
The problem is that this technology is expensive and time consuming. It can take more than 24 hours to detect the presence of metals beneath book bindings. For the unscrupulous, however, there is another way. The fragments from an ancient mummy mask can be harvested by dissolving the mask in an inexpensive bath of warm water and Palmolive. It’s destructive, but it’s cheap. And there’s money to be made: an early fragment of the New Testament or Homer is much more valuable than a mummy mask, and for some the chance to play archaeological lucky dip is enticing. No black market antiquities dealer will be paying Dutch or Italian scholars to x-ray their holdings.
But of course, some ethical problems still persist. Once people know that there’s a piece of the Odyssey or the Gospel of John inside of a mummy mask, it will be tempting to play tomb raider in order to extract it for a better look. Now that scholars have x-ray vision and the ability to read through bindings, let’s hope that they’ll use their powers for good not evil.