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I’m glad everyone enjoyed the recent post. I have another.

Some people may have noted in the news that using NASA tech, we are now able to read some burned, rolled up scrolls from the House of the Papyri (qv) in Pompeii. It is a preserved library that may give us some ancient works we don’t have. Or just grocery notes. We’re still reading them. Some appear to be works of philosophy.

From my comment on Facebook: “Some people don’t know HOW we have exact copies of ancient writings such as works of Plato, Terence, Plautus, Vergil, Demosthenes, Horace, Ovid, etc. Hand-copying was how, back in the ancient world: a ‘printing press’ consisted of a large room of copyists (best in the front, with best materials) hearing dictation from a master reader and taking it down, ‘mass-producing’ a book or play, which would then sell, depending on quality for, oh, the modern equivalent of 30,000 dollars. And which would then be read in the household in leisure time, to all persons interested in hearing—ancient television.. Or lent to other households, in return for other books. It was a social thing, in the case of fiction or philosophy.

When the ancient world collapsed, we lost a lot: but monasteries preserved the precious books.. And monasteries that had books lent copies, a careful and perilous transport in some cases, to other monasteries to copy, often by monks who didn’t know the languages they were transcribing. This occasioned mistakes, which pass through a ‘line of descent’ of manuscripts, which works like DNA to determine which manuscript is most like the original, which are ‘daughter’ manuscripts down which line, and therefore which is the more ‘correct’ reading. (Sometimes as well, margin notes got copied in by mistake.)

Some of the surviving mediaeval copies are in the Vatican’s collection, or at other universities.

We also get a bit from Egypt, where schoolchildren copied onto papyrus—we learn pronunciation from their spelling errors, and occasionally get lines from lost plays…which we would love to have the rest of.

This is why this discovery in the Pompeii eruption is so exciting: these are whole ancient books that we may never have seen before—being read by space-age science.”

8 comments to I’m glad everyone enjoyed the recent post. I have another.

  • A Canticle For Lebowitz comes to mind.

  • Ruadhan

    I’m personally hoping for a copy of Tyrrenika (in 20 volumes, discussing the Etruscans) and/or the dictionary and grammar of the language, all by Claudius.

    Because I am a linguistics nerd, and sappy about it.

  • It would be nice to get some of the lost manuscripts.

  • It would be great if we had more on the Etruscans as well as the Minoans, or things on the Basques.

    If that new scanning method could be applied to other antiquities texts, we might find more from all sorts of sources.

    Being able to read what was on codices from Pompeii? Oh, wow, if we could recover whole or partial works. Or heck, ordinary notes, secretarial notes, students’ practice pages…so much more could be revealed that way about daily life, as well as about what they knew of the world at that time.

    All those things lost through the centuries to neglect, flood, fire, insects and vermin, or theft or religious prejudices…. If we can recover some portion, it wold be a huge boon to our knowledge of who they were, what they knew and thought about the world.

    It would also be a big benefit to studying the languages back then, added words to the corpus, more about grammar and etymology…ooh, dang, so good. 😀 Hmm, what about maps or building plans or a recipe for Roman concrete, and so on?

    Exciting stuff!

    Also, that is a good example of why space exploration is worth it. We get all kinds of offshoots in useful products and techniques from it, and those encourage other inventions that have real value in life. Those humble quick meal pouches, for instance. Microwave ovens. Miniaturized computer and communications equipment…. All sorts of good things, all spawned, directly or indirectly, by the space program (and not just NASA, but private contractors and, significantly, the Russians and Europeans and others).

    Who knows what might turn up in those scrolls? A real treasure trove, something we (and the original owner) never would have thought would be recoverable, but priceless treasures in words and pictures. All because they loved to read.

  • chondrite

    In library school, one of the essays I wrote was about the callous disregard many people had for other people’s written words. Over the years, reverence for books went from ancient kings (Assurbanipal) requiring any traveler who passed through his kingdom to submit their written works for the kings’ scribes to copy, to destroying ‘heretical’ manuscripts (“If it is not in the Koran, it is blasphemy; if it is already in the Koran, it is merely duplication. Either may be discarded.”) to using the contents of a library to fuel a rich man’s heated bath water (sadly, this is where some of those Roman troves of scrolls went, including some from the Library of Alexandria). Fortuitously, there were always enclaves of scholars who were able to see beyond the mores of the times… Still, how much we have lost!

  • Tommie

    Does anyone here think that there will be a less than respectable part of that library? If there is, will it ever be released for public consumption? One realizes, of course, that other peoples and other times thought other things entirely non-respectable.

  • CJ

    Oh, Tommie, the Greeks and Romans (more the Greeks) viewed procreation as sacred, and it figures in art. The Romans were a strait-laced lot—one old censor (an office) banished a guy for a time for giving his wife a romantic kiss in front of the children. Time out, you! outta the City!

    The Greeks, not so much—depending on which city. Cultures differed.

    But modern museums tend to put those things on a higher shelf, or sometimes, into a back room. I shepherded some kids through Pompeii. They were standing on tiptoe at the brothel to see the artwork (the viewport on the door is deliberately high up) when a flock of habited nuns came around the corner, and the kids like to have died at that moment. I stood and laughed.

  • Raesean

    My favorite classical statue at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a magnificent, 5’ high statue of the fertility God, Priapus, balancing an “apron-full” of fruits on his, well, utterly magnificent membrum virile.

    Yes, the MFA had the statue for some 100 years in a storage room. They conserved it and first exhibited it at a superb show they initiated on Aphrodite maybe ten or so years ago. After that, they finally had the “balls” to put it on permanent exhibit in the Roman Art section of the museum. When I bring my Art History students through the gallery, they are always riveted… if embarrassed.

    Should you wish to see this magnificence, here is the link:
    http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/statue-of-priapus-151204

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