The ancient art of accidental preservation

This is a follow-up to the blog written on May 12th titled, “Did the written word make us who we are?”

It’s a catchy little title for a blog that discussed the advent of the written word, and the invention of the printing press—I know, I know, fascinating stuff. You can read it for yourself below:

This post has a solid tie-in to the original. One of the immediate unforeseen problems the printing press caused was a shortage of binding materials. Suddenly everybody—well those who could read I guess—wanted access to more and more books.

The answer lay all around. Hundreds of thousands of those antiquated, fallen-out-of-fashion parchments. Like an old iPhone 6 nobody wanted, manuscripts were suddenly yesterday’s technology. Those old stiff pieces of sheep or goat skin with handwritten and hand-illuminated gospels, poems, Roman laws, and religious scripts, now all outdated and no longer needed. A wonderful and free resource, perfect for the 16th Century bookbinder busy assembling the new cutting-edge technology of the printed word.

Many works dating back to the 6th Century and before were destroyed in this manner. Scholars have known about the practice for a long time, but it wasn’t until recently that they had the technology to read what was hidden within the bindings.

Computational imaging and signal processing advances opened up a whole new way to read these texts

Mark Walton, senior scientist at the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies (NU-ACCESS).

The book that initially caught the researcher’s eye and made it worthy of further investigation was a 1537 copy of “Works and Days” by the Greek poet Hesiod, a writer who likely lived during the same period as Homer. It was evident that the spine and inside cover were composed of much earlier parchment.

What was revealed in the spine and manuscript inside the cover was a sixth-century Roman law code with notes referencing the church’s canon law.

OK—so that one turned out to be pretty dull to everybody except scholars of 6th Century Roman bye-laws, but, believe me, those guys, they are losing their shit right now.

What is important is that thousands and thousands of these manuscripts were re-purposed in this manner, and who knows what wealth of history and information lies hidden in the spines of all the books printed in the 16th and 17th centuries? What secrets, scandals, and schemes that could have been lost forever are waiting for modern scholars to unveil?

Somehow, inadvertently, all of this history that might have otherwise been lost, burnt, or otherwise destroyed has become assimilated and preserved into the structure of the first modern books. And only now, through 21st-century technology has it once again become retrievable.

Probably just me and Greta, but we think that’s pretty cool. Right?

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