Mar 18, 2018 I Brett Tingley

Mysterious Ancient Medical Text Found ‘Hidden’ Inside 11th-Century Hymnal

As technologies continue to improve, we are beginning to learn that there are many secrets of the past hidden in plain sight in some of our well-known historical relics. Artificial intelligence has allowed researchers to unlock some secrets of cryptic ancient texts like the Voynich Manuscript, while advances in imaging software have revealed hidden images in known Egyptian paintings and even the Shroud of TurinOne of the most promising new instruments for uncovering hidden layers of history is known as the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a device which can produce a unique kind of x-rays by spinning rings of electrons at nearly the speed of light, allowing for precise imaging at the molecular or even atomic level.

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The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL)

Just this week, scientists at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory used the SSRL to discover a mysterious ancient text hidden within the pages of an 11th-century hymn book. Even better: the hidden text is believed to have been written by Galen of Pergamum, an ancient Greek sophist widely recognized as one of the founders of modern medicine and anatomy. What ancient knowledge might be hidden within these pages?

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Such recycled manuscripts containing vestiges of original material are known as palimpsests.

Galen’s text is believed to have been written down on parchment by monks at a monastery in Egypt sometime in the 6th century. Later, someone in the 11th century erased the text by scratching off the ink. Parchment wasn’t cheap back then, and recycling old texts was commonplace. The translation of Galen’s text was written in Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic spoken in ancient Syria. Each of the 26 pages takes around ten hours to be analyzed, then historians and scholars have to painstakingly translate each line of text, meaning researchers have so far only begun to scratch the surface of what might be written inside.

Still, Peter Pormann, a University of Manchester classicist, told Newsweek that the results so far are “incredibly mind-blowing,” adding that Galen is “the most important and most influential physician arguably of all time.” Could this text contain ancient medical knowledge lost to history, or will it be another rumination on the four humours?

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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