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Recovering Ancient Texts

June 22, 2011

Recovering ancient texts

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More than 20 professors and students at Baylor University recently performed an unconventional research project, working with third-century BCE Egyptian mummy coverings and papyri that was used for domestic purposes dating back to the fifth century.

They dissolved exterior coverings to find discarded ancient papyri writings that were used by Egyptian mortuary priests. The priests recycled discarded texts, re-hydrating strips to cover the embalmed body before plastering it, drying it and painting it.

"To the students' amazement, the mummy covering and domestic papyri were submerged separately into a bath with gentle dissolving agents -- and out of the murky waters emerged bright, clear and sometimes complete papyrus texts as if they had been raised from the dead," says Dr. Scott Carroll, who is overseeing undergraduate students in the work. A research professor of manuscript studies and the biblical tradition in Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, Carroll is also director of the Green Collection, which supplied the items for study. 

More than 150 papyri texts were recovered, including Egyptian funerary texts, letters in Greek and Coptic, and a fourth-century Coptic Gospel text. Fragments of a copy of Greek statesman Demosthenes' "On the Crown" were discovered dating to the mid-fifth century BCE -- only a few generations after the speech was delivered.

"As discoveries go, it won't get much more dramatic than this," Carroll says. "But as exciting as the discoveries are, the work has only begun. Now texts need to be painstakingly pieced together, analyzed, translated and prepared for publication."

The Green Collection is one of the world's largest collections of biblical antiquities and rare printed and historical items relating to the biblical tradition. Students and faculty from the Department of Classics and the Honors College were among those who took part.

The Green Scholars research at Baylor is being conducted by Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey, isr director of manuscript research in scripture and tradition, Dr. Jeff Fish, associate professor in the Classics Department, Dr. Daniel Williams (religion), Dr. Sarah Jane Murray (great texts) and Dr. Ken Jones (history), along with Carroll as principal investigator. Baylor is the primary academic partner for the Green Scholars Initiative.

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