March 15, 2018

Could the power of x-rays reveal ancient Greek knowledge hidden inside an inconspicuous book?


Eighteenth-century portrait of Galen by Georg Paul Busch

Ever heard of Claudius Galenus? He was quite a guy. Born in 131 CE, he was a Greek physician, philosopher, and writer who lived in the Roman Empire. His works and theories dominated European medicine for nearly fifteen hundred years.

He studied at the famous medical school in Alexandria, and became the surgeon to a school of gladiators. Neat. He then made his way to Rome to seek his fortune, and seek his fortune he did.

He was all about anatomy, physiology, and observation, and specialised in dissection, keeping careful records of his findings. He made important medical advances, including his demonstration that the arteries carry blood, not air, as had been taught for four hundred years. (Don’t you just hate it when you accidentally cut yourself and all that air comes rushing out? Death by deflation.)

He was also quite the prolific writer. He may have written as many as five hundred treaties, employing twenty scribes to record his words. Less than a third of his works still exist today. He was also really humble, as demonstrated by his treatise entitled That the Best Physician Is Also a Philosopher. But hey, when you go on to become physician to the emperor and influence medical thinking for all time to come, I think you can get away with it.

Fast-forward to the modern day, and one of his works has been found in a most unusual place: inside a hymn book. Live Science’s Rafi Letzter write that, about a thousand years ago, someone scraped the ink off the pages of a copy, in Syiac, of some of Galen’s writing, writing over them with Christian psalms. The book survived, and was discovered in Germany in the early twentieth century, when it was traced back to St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. Someone at that monastery would sure be in trouble… if they hadn’t been dead for over a thousand years.

The book now resides in California at the US Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Here, researchers are trying to reveal Galen’s original words by x-raying the hymn book, subjecting each of its twenty-six pages to ten hours of scanning. The thinking is that the sixth-century ink will react differently than the eleventh-century ink, and hey, presto, ancient knowledge recovered.

“So far, they have not been able to reveal all of the hidden text, which was thoroughly scrubbed off in some sections,” a spokesperson told Letzter.

Will its secrets be revealed? Stay tuned, folks. The results will be posted online once all the scanning is complete.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.