Medical Text of Ancient Greek Doctor Revealed under Religious Psalms on Parchment

Scientists uncovered a 6th century text by Greek-Roman doctor Galen under a parchment manuscript written over with hymns in the 11th century.

An international multidisciplinary team in California used X-ray imaging at SLAC’s synchrotron to unveil a translation of the ancient Greek medical text that until now had been covered with religious writing.

The scientists at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory used high-powered X-rays to analyze the text from St Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. The book first appeared in Germany in the early 1900s. On the surface there were 10th century psalms, which were found to be covering writings by ancient Greek-Roman doctor Galen that had been translated a few hundred years after his death into the ancient Syriac language.

It appears that the parchment, which was limited at the time, was recycled by 11th century scribes who scrubbed and replaced the original text with layers of calcium, a rudimentary form of white-out, and then wrote a book of psalms on top of the original text.

Galen, who lived from 129 to around 216 AD, was using apes as guinea pigs and made some important discoveries such as that arteries do not carry air, but blood. His work remained influential into the Middle Ages.

The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) used to make the discovery, is a common particle accelerator. It works by accelerating electrons to nearly the speed of light and keeps them traveling around a many-sided polygon. Magnets change the electrons’ directions, producing a beam of high-energy X-rays, which successfully revealed the ink that had been scraped off on the parchment.

Researchers now have plans to scan the 26 pages to produce high-resolution files that will be uploaded and made available online.