The Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum

A palimpsest containing an ancient medical treatise beneath biblical text has been discovered by the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in South Sinai, according to a report in Ahram Online. Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany said the manuscript was found during restoration work in the monastery’s ancient library, which holds some 6,000 manuscripts. The leather pages of the palimpsest were first used in the sixth century A.D. for a recipe attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates. Three other medical recipes, and pictures of medicinal herbs, had also been recorded on its pages by an anonymous scribe. During the medieval period, the pages were scraped and reused for the text of the Codex Sinaiticus, an early version of the Christian scriptures. “This was done due to the high cost of leather at that time,” explained Ahmed Al-Nimer, supervisor of Coptic archaeology for the ministry. Many of the ancient world’s literary masterpieces remain lost—for example, only seven of the purported 123 plays of Sophocles exist today. It remains to be seen what unknown works might lie among the unread Herculaneum papyri.

There is a real possibility of recovering long-vanished classics of ancient Greek and Roman literature, especially since additional scrolls may still be discovered in the unexcavated parts of the villa.

Kemo D. 7

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