Egyptian Grocery list or literary relic?

Mummy mask made out of linen and paste at the LA County Museum. Source: rocor, flickr.

As writers, we’re used to piles of discarded paper chronicling our darling first drafts—or am I the only one who still writes on cellulose? No matter. It seems my piles of scribbled on scraps would have been welcome coffin components in ancient Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian painted layers of papyrus and molded them into coffins.  Today scientists x-ray these recycled sheets with intense different colored lights to reveal the text originally written on each layer. These layers could be grocery lists or snippets of the Bible, but before the new technologies could reveal the words beneath the paint archaeologists were forced to wash the art off the artifact.

Mike Toth, a private imaging expert, is among the scientists from ivy-league universities experimenting on how archaeologists can learn for the artifacts without destroying them. He uses red, purple and other colored lights to reveal text written in different compositions of ink. But the gunk and dust-bunnies from the last couple thousand years can make an x-ray foggy at best.

Uwe Bergmann, a Stanford physicist, applies his knowledge of photosynthesis in spinach leaves to emphasis the metal inks within all the layers and ancient Mod Podge.

Toth said, “At the very least, we want to say there’s no text there and don’t even consider tearing this apart because you’re just going to destroy an object.”


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