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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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From Dust to Digital

From Dust to Digital

Gregory Heyworth, ancient texts lab (credit: The Lazarus Translation Project)

Knowledge is passed down orally, visually, or by the written word. It is easily lost if not translated or shared and 'book burning' has a long and sad history, particularly during conflicts and invasions. The famous Library of Alexandria contained written scrolls from across the ancient Mediterranean and was destroyed during multiple conflicts in the city. The library's destruction likely represented the greatest loss of collected knowledge from the Greco-Roman world that has ever existed.

Can 21st Century technologies help recover ancient texts and what they have to tell us? That's the life's work of translators like Gregory Heyworth who deciphers re-discovered manuscripts. Heyworth directs The Lazarus Imaging Project at Princeton University. He and his team use digital imaging to decipher unreadable papyri scrolls and other written fragments, faded documents, and unknown books. These visualizations of ancient writing creates a digital surrogate of the text that can then be studied by historians, artists, and other interested researchers around the world.

Likewise, efforts have been underway in the Classics Department at Oxford University to translate ancient documents discovered by chance in a rubbish heap outside Cairo in the Egyptian desert. They had been covered for 2000 years under dry sand near the town of Oxyrhynchus. The Oxford initiative is called the Oxyrhynchus Project, named for the cache of fragments found in 1898. The trove had been protected by the desert conditions but existed as thousands of fragments that were written in ancient Greek on papyrus scrolls (papyri). The scattered documents were gathered, boxed, and shipped to the University where they have remained for over a century unread in a basement. Since their discovery, ~5000 documents have been transcribed from the hundreds of boxes of fragments, some only the size of a corn flake. The project estimates these translations represent less than 2% of what may be a half million bits of papyri still in the storage cellar waiting to be translated. 

Slowly, slowly the fragments are being digitally scanned and uploaded into a database being made available now to individuals for a crowd-sourced translation project. You don't even need to know Greek to help transcribe a fragment as the project provides a 'key' to decipher the Greek letters to the English alphabet. It is a huge job but who knows, maybe epics of Greek literature or lost chapters by Homer, Herodotus, and Aristotle might re-emerge in this 'dust to digital' effort. WHB

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