Monday, January 24, 2011

Lab Work - extracting manuscripts

Early on in my career I found that the days on a dig often ran together in my memory and I tended to lose track of the sequence of events.  After my first dig I started to keep a journal of the days, so I can refer back to events later without confusing myself.  In order to stay recognized in this field we’re required to publish papers and it could get embarrassing when you sit down to write up a project and find you can’t remember exactly what happened in what sequence.  People tend to doubt your expertise if your papers talk about translating documents before you’ve actually dug them up.  I’ve found that having a journal solves that problem.
So, where are we?  Well, it’s been almost a week since my trip out to the dig site.  Most of the time since then I’ve been I’ve been helping Henri set up the lab equipment we’ll use on the project and familiarizing myself with Marseille.  After opening the first few scrolls the Professeur decided to leave the rest until the new lab is running, so I’m still waiting impatiently for my first look at whatever else is in those amphora.
The lab here is small, but perfectly suited to our needs.  Controlled temperature and humidity and lots of tech toys to play with.  I’m saying we, but this physical process will actually be managed by an experienced museum curator / conservator, expert in this type of recovery.  The Professeur has called in some of the favors he’s collected over the years.  The University of Aix-Provence has provided these facilities at their Marseille campus.  Henri Metain, a friend of his from the Paris Museum has joined us and is doing all the document extraction and conservation.  As the language expert I was destined to wait on the sidelines for a while longer, but I’ve managed to convince Henri that not only does he need an assistant, but that I am the perfect choice.  So I get to play with some of the tech toys too!
Henri turned away from the window as I walked into the lab.  A tall man, middle aged with just a touch of grey in his hair.  I noticed his fingers were long, slender, almost a pianists.  He smiled in greeting. 
“Hey! Ready to start work?”  A nice mellow voice, with just a trace of a Scottish accent.
“Ready and raring!”  I smiled back.  “Lead on McDuff!”
He laughed. 
“I’ve decided that we’ll work through the amphora one by one.  Crack the seal, remove whatever it contains, which hopefully will be more scrolls, photograph and scan everything digitally and make multiple copies and backups.  That way if anything screws up we’ll still have something to show for our efforts.  Come,” he gestured towards the tables around the walls of the lab, “I’ll walk you through the process.” 
“We’ll be using a new technique I’ve developed for unrolling these particular scrolls.  It’s a series of specially formulated silicon baths, designed to remove the wax and then soak and soften the vellum without damaging either the scroll or the inks.  Do you remember ‘Dubbin’, that  greasy stuff you used to put on hiking boots to keep them soft and supple?  Well, we’re using a high-tech silicon equivalent.  It softens the vellum, but doesn’t cause it to stretch or sag.  It also ‘fixes’ the inks so nothing gets dissolved or washed away.”   
On the tables around the room were a series of 21 tanks, much like the chemical development trays I’d used when I worked in my photo darkroom, only each was about 10” deep.  Each was filled with liquid and scrolls were immersed in each tank.  Henri pointed to the nearest. 
“These are scrolls I just put in to soak.  As you progress around the room the tanks contain slightly different solutions, each one acting to remove wax and soften the vellum.  The first three tanks are mainly to remove the heavy wax coating on the outside of the scrolls, so we’ll have to change the solution every day on those.  The scrolls in the tanks down the end of the table have been through the entire process and now are mainly softening the vellum.  There shouldn’t be any wax left on those scrolls.  Each morning we’ll transfer the scrolls from one tank to the next.  The scrolls soak in the baths for a total of 21 days, one day per tank.  After that, we should be able to unroll the scroll reasonably easily.”
“Come over here.  Put some gloves on and let’s get you going.”  He passed me some latex gloves and positioned me in front of the last tray on the table.
“Take a scroll out of this tray and bring it over to this workstation.”  In the centre of the room was another table with two wide, shallow trays.  Myriad tools and small weights surrounded the trays.   Keeping the scroll submerged, I transferred it to a small carrying tray, lifted the tray and scroll out of the soaking tank and carried it carefully over to the workstation and placed it gently out into the shallow tray.
“Now, with your fingertips, or one of the spatulas here and using a very gentle pressure, coax the scroll open, then gently unroll it and let it lay flat.  Keep enough solution in the tray so the solution takes the weight of the pages, not the vellum itself.  That way there’s no pressure on the vellum, thus no cracking or damage.” 
As he talked I did as he directed, my fingers moving almost as if he were controlling them instead of me.  There was a rhythm in the motions, slow, deliberate and steady, calming, almost like a tai-chi meditation movement.
“Now, once you’ve got it open and flat, use the small weights to hold it open, good, now cut the bindings.  Very carefully, separate each of the individual pages of the book.  Transfer each page to one of these plates,” he handed me a wooden plate coated with a soft absorbent paper, “lay another on top to keep the page flat and set them in the drying chamber.  They’ll dry in there, takes a couple of days.  Once it’s dry, it’s fairly safe to handle.  The silicon softens the vellum enough to be flexible and provides a protective sealant coating.   Then we bring it over here to the scanner.”
He walked on to the next station around the room which housed a large format scanner connected to a PC.
“From here we take a series of very high definition digital scans, at 15,000 x 15,000 dot per inch resolution.  We do both sides of each page using a variety of light sources, from infrared to visible to ultraviolet.  Then the scrolls themselves are shipped off to a vault at the University of Aix-Provence for permanent storage.  This will be the only time you get to touch the actual scrolls.  From here on, all your work will be done from the digital scans.”
He sat back as I loaded the last page into the drying chamber.  “You did that very well.  Have you ever worked in a lab before?”
I laughed.  “Nope!  Well, except for my photography darkroom years ago.  This is the first time in a real lab.  I’m a language major.  Up till now I’ve almost always worked with photographs and copies, very rarely with originals.  This is great!”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”  He laughed, walked over to a fridge and pulled out a couple of soft drinks, handing me one.   “We’ll be at this for a while so pace yourself.  For now, let’s go grab some lunch.”  He glanced up at the clock on the wall and I followed his gaze.  It was noon.  We’d been working on that one scroll for over four hours.  I couldn’t believe the time had passed so quickly.
After lunch we each took a workstation and continued unrolling scrolls and separating pages.  My thoughts wandered as I worked.  So, this was the only time I’ll actually touch the scrolls.  Too bad. As I worked I let my fingers linger on each page.  Like that dinosaur bone of many years ago, somehow I could feel the weight of time permeating the scrolls.  Unlike the bone though, the scrolls also held an deep aura of mystery.  Hopefully once I started translating them the mystery would resolve itself, but that was for later.  Right now, if all of my future work was to be done from the digital images alone, I’d just have to treasure this part of the job.
The next stage would still be exciting though.  Even though I’ll be working with their digital images rather than the scrolls themselves, given some of the enhancement capabilities of the software I’ll be using, I’ll be able to read the vellum skin cell by cell if I want.  Personally I’ll probably stay at the normal reading level, but Henri claims that they’ll be able to tell the sequencing of the documents by simply comparing the fine detail of the vellum itself. 
When dealing with fragmented documents, which is a common occurrence when working with papyrus scrolls, the research teams would sometimes re-assemble a damaged scroll by ignoring the writing and simply aligning the fine detail of the papyrus used to make the scroll.  By a similar process you could identify which pieces of vellum came from a single animal skin.  Did I mention that people in this line of work can get pretty obsessive when it comes to attention to detail?

Monday, January 17, 2011

An Archeology Dig Site in Southern France

Suddenly I no longer wanted to idle away the morning watching the sun rise.  Dropping a few Euros on the table I stood, shrugged into my jacket and followed the Professeur out to his pride and joy, a vintage grey Citroen and we headed out of Marseilles.  As usual he drove like a maniac.  My fingers dug into the upholstery as the car swept through the streets.  What scared me even more was that, like a true Frenchman, the Professeur waved his arms a lot as recounted the tale of the cave’s discovery.
“I have a student at the university, Marcel Depuis.  He is both young and athletic, a very outdoors type of person.  In his spare time he is a volunteer with the local search and rescue group. 
About 6 months ago, some tourists were hiking around the Garbalan when a crevice opened up and swallowed one of them.  His partners called for the rescue squad and luckily young Marcel was part of the team.  They extricated the tourist from his predicament and as he was only slightly injured he quickly went on his way.  However, during the rescue Marcel had noticed that the newly opened crevice had a deeper opening where it entered the rock face, hidden from the outside, only revealed now because of the clumsy tourists fall.
Have you heard of the Chauvet cave?”   He veered off subject as he swerved around a pedestrian who’d been foolish enough to step off the sidewalk.  “It was found just a few years, less than two hundred kilometers north of where we are right now.  It contains some of the finest Stone Age cave art ever found in France, believed to be as much as thirty thousand years old.  Perhaps Marcel had dreams of finding another such wonder.  Anyway, he explored the cave and found it led directly back into the cliff for several hundred feet and then ended in a small grotto.  At that point he acted with surprising intelligence for one so young.  He touched nothing and reported his find to me.  I may even give him an A for his course work for that single action.”
He chuckled to himself, turned onto the main highway heading east and the Citroen surged forward.  I’m sure he thought he was on a German Autobahn!
“So,” he continued, calmly ignoring both the traffic and my reactions.  “Marcel and I came down here the next day.  The grotto is small, but holds dozens of large clay amphorae, the kind the ancient Greeks used for storing food stuffs like grain and wine.   I took many pictures.  As you may know, the University Chancellor and I are on very good terms and when I showed him the pictures he immediately agreed to fund an excavation.  Within two weeks we had removed a single amphora back to the University.  When we opened the vase, we found it contained almost forty scrolls, all sealed in wax.  It took almost four weeks of careful work to open the first few scrolls and that’s when it got really exciting.  The first scroll we unrolled was written in first century Aramaic, the second in Coptic, the third in Hebrew and the forth in early Greek.   That was when I called you to join us!”
We’d been driving east from Marseille all this time and by now I thought I could see occasional glimpses of the Garbalan through the trees.   The hills gradually rose around us as we approached the town of Aubagne and the white crown of rock that was the Garbalan Massif formed a striking backdrop to the town.
The Professeur drove into the centre of town and then headed north, mounting up the slopes of the Garbalan itself.   As the trees fell away from the sides of the road I could finally see the Massif clearly.  What had looked like a snow cap from a distance turned out to be a surprisingly white rock, almost completely bare of vegetation.  Where the sun hit the rock it shone as if illuminated from within.  The crest of the Garbalan made me think of an eyebrow, looming out slightly over empty space. Two thousand two hundred feet high doesn’t sound particularly high as mountains go, but from under the peak it gave me an uncomfortable feeling.  The mountain hung above me, brooding, as if waiting to fall and crush me.  About three quarters of the way up the Professeur swung the car off the dirt road and parked beside a couple of other cars on the hillside.  We got out and I looked around.  Marseille lay towards the west, on my right.  The valley spread out below me, changing from the white rock around me to dusty brown and then into the bright rich greens of the spring trees of southern France.  Beyond, on the horizon, I could see the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean, sunlight glinting off the waves.
The Professeur came up behind me. 
“Beautiful is it not?  They say that the galleys of ancient Rome and Egypt used this mount as their guide, like a lighthouse beacon, to lead them from far out at sea in towards the port of Massilia, which in time became Marseille.  If the winds were good, the trip from Alexandria to Massilia would normally take perhaps 20 to 25 days.  This gleaming mount behind us must have been a welcoming sight to see after so many days on the water.    I’m sure I would have been overjoyed to see it after I’d been at sea for three or four weeks in a Roman galley.  But come, we’re here for other reasons.”
He turned away, casually dismissing the incredible view and lead me towards the cliff face.
The path we followed was rough, barely even a goat trail and led to a narrow crevice in the face of the rock.   Here mounds of loose rock lay about, obviously freshly fallen from above.  A small generator sat off to one side, quietly humming to itself.
“Careful where you step.” said the Professeur.  “The team cleared away only enough to allow us to get into the cave, though they intend to come back later and see if there is anything of interest under all this rubble.  You know archeologists, quite happy to sift through tons of rock to find a single potsherd.”
I had to laugh.  I’d spent many months on dig sites, carefully removing dirt a spoonful at a time. I remembered my very first dig, with my uncle at Drumheller, in Alberta, Canada.  We spent a morning excavating a dinosaur bone from the slate, using only needle probes and fine camel-hair paint-brushes, prying the dirt away from the bone millimeter by millimeter.  I remember holding that bone, running my fingers over its surface.  I swore I could feel the millions of years of time infusing the bone, giving it something more than just weight.  Touching that bone gave me a sense of wonder that a thing could be imbued with such an aura of age, awe and mystery. I was so proud of that first bone.  I still have it somewhere, stacked away with my many other treasures.
Looking into the crevice revealed… nothing much.  From the outside it looked like it dead-ended about 40 feet in.  As the Professeur drew me in I realized that just at the end the passage did a little jog left, then a sharp turn right.  The little jog left was enough to hide the deeper entrance, making the crevice of little interest to anyone unless they actually walked all the way to the back.
As I moved into the crevice the walls above me sloped inwards and then joined overhead, forming an enclosed cave.  The tourist must have fallen in from above the front of the crevice and slide towards the back.  It was only the fact that the rescue team had to move deeper into the crevice to get the man out that Marcel had noticed the deeper cave entrance at all.  Such is the game of archeology; sometimes walking one extra foot can mean the difference between making a discovery and missing it entirely.
We rounded the sharp right turn at the back of the crevice and moved deeper into the cave, careful not to trip on the power cords weaving across the uneven rock floor.  There were flood lights every few feet, illuminating the dark.  The tunnel was no more than five feet wide here and it meandered around as it went back, so you couldn’t see more than twenty feet or so in front of you before the line of sight was blocked by the cave walls.  Looking at the ceiling I could see smoke trails, possibly left by ancient torches two thousand years in the past.  The passage extended back a long way, three or four hundred feet at least.  At the end of the tunnel it opened up into a fairly large grotto, maybe forty feet across, roughly circular in shape, with a domed ceiling.   The floor was surprisingly smooth and even and I thought that perhaps it may have been artificially leveled at some time in the past.  Towards the back of the grotto the floor sloped gently up and formed a slightly raised platform.  On the platform lay a number of large amphorae, most still half covered under broken rubble.
There were four people in the grotto, three working carefully around an amphora, in the process of extricating it.  The forth was taking photos as the excavation progressed.  He noticed us as we approached and turned to greet us. 
“Ah, Professeur.  Welcome.  And you mademoiselle, must be Jeanne-Marie, our expert translator.  I am Jacques Denois, the supposed leader of this little dig.”
He smiled, transferred the camera to his left hand and shook hands with us. 
“What do you think?” he exclaimed, making a sweeping gesture back towards the platform.  “We’ve extracted 10 jars so far and believe there are probably at least thirty more hidden under the rubble.”
He walked us around the cave, pointing out where they’d extracted the amphora and the smoke marks on the walls that must have come from ancient torches.  Jacque motioned towards the back of the cave.  “Look at the cave and the way the jars are stored and tell me if you see anything interesting.”
He gave us a few minutes.  I scanned the cave, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  Nothing really jumped out at me, but then I haven’t been in many caves.
“You may not have ever had the chance,” he continued after a moment, “but I was lucky enough to be able to visit the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Israel.  A couple of years later, I also saw the caves where the Nag Hammadi Scrolls were found in Egypt.  In both locations I got the feeling that the people who hid the scrolls simply dumped them in the first available cave, possibly in a hurry.  The scrolls were put in jars, the jars sealed and then placed in the caves, apparently with no great planning.  This cave is different.  Do you see?”  He gestured again towards the raised area.
“These jars are placed on the platform at the back of the cave, which is raised a little higher than the cave floor.  Not only that, but they are laid on a bed of broken rock, almost a gravel.  The back of the cave slopes very gently down to the front of the cave and you may not have noticed it when you came in, but the tunnel entrance to the cave is also very gently sloped.  If any water leaking from the rocks above us were to enter this cave, it would tend to flow quite naturally out the entrance and away down the hill outside.   Any water around the jars would flow through the loose rocks under the jars, rather than around the jars themselves.”
“Not only that,” he continued, excitement creeping into his voice, “but the jars themselves are unusual.  Each one is covered with a thick wax coating.  The one jar that we’ve already opened had a thick wax coating on both the outside and the inside and the mouth of the jar was very heavily sealed, much more so than you would normally expect.  All the jars are laid on the rocks in the same way, lying down on their sides, but with the mouth higher than the rest of the jar itself.  It would be exceedingly hard for water to enter the jars.  In fact I’d guess the cave would have to be flooded to a depth of four or five feet before that would happen.  A most unlikely event.  The loose rock covering the jars also provides protection from any debris falling from the cave roof above.”
“In my estimation and I see from your expressions that you already think the same, this cave was very carefully designed and prepared to store the jars, probably with the intention of protecting them for many years.  It obviously worked with amazing success.  If the initial dating of the first scrolls is correct, this secret cache of jars was deliberately and carefully hidden some 2,000 years ago and has remained hidden and undisturbed ever since.  The first jar contained some forty scrolls.  If the others also contain documents, well, we’ll have found a veritable library.”
“Astounding!”  Exclaimed the Professeur, shaking his head.  “Simply astounding!” 
For once, he seemed to be at a loss for words.  The idea raised all sorts of questions.  Who would go to so much effort to protect these amphorae?  Why?  What was so important about them?  Was the intent really to hide them for all this time, or was that an accident?  What could be in the jars that warranted such care?  If they did contain scrolls, then perhaps the documents themselves would reveal the answers.  I thought of all the languages the first few scrolls had covered.  Perhaps we’d end up with more questions than answers.
We walked carefully around the cave for a few more minutes, each lost in our own thoughts.  This cave could hold all sorts of surprises.
“Well, Jacques,” the Professeur said, obviously a bit tired of looking at rocks now the initial excitement was over.  “We should have the lab in Marseille set up and running in the next few days.  Now that Jeanne-Marie is here we will soon find out what we have.”
“Excellent!” replied Jacques.  “And we should have the next few jars ready for shipment within a day or so.  Progress on all fronts!”
With that we said our goodbyes and made our way back down the tunnel, emerging at last into the sunlight.  The view from the rocks out towards the sea had a different feel to it now.  If I squinted my eyes a bit I could almost see the ancient galleys making their way west along the coast, skimming across the crested waves, heading towards port in ancient Massilia.  The drive back to Marseille was surprisingly quiet, as we each mulled over our own thoughts.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Impossible Gnostic poems hidden away

I sipped my second glass of orange juice and watched the morning sun rise over the hills east of Marseille.  Here I was, a young, single woman, dark auburn hair, green eyes, slender, five foot ten, reasonably good looking (at least I thought so!), alone in southern France in spring.  What more could a girl ask for?  As if in answer, my idle day-dreaming was interrupted by a familiar voice calling my name.
“Jeanne-Marie, bonjour, comment sa vas! How are you?”
As I rose to greet the Professeur he grabbed my hand and shook it happily.
“How was your flight?  How was the hotel room?  Everything is good I ‘ope?”
I grinned at him and retrieved my hand.  He’d been my mentor in university, Professor Desjardins, but we always called him ‘le Professeur’.  As usual his hair was in disarray, odd strands sticking out at all angles and his speckled salt and pepper beard seemed to have caught some breakfast crumbs.  He was a big man and gave the impression of being even larger than he was.  He always reminded me of a happy gorilla, or perhaps a French Friar Tuck.  Right now he seemed to be excited about something, as his French accent was seeping into his speech, something he normally made a great effort to avoid.
“Thank you Professeur, everything was fine.  I slept the entire flight from Montreal.   Best way to beat jet lag that I know.  I feel great, ready for anything!”
“Excellent!” he cried, “Excellent! Then anything it shall be!”  He squeezed himself into the chair across the table from me.  “Garćon!” he called to the waiter who’d spent more time flirting with me than he had serving me breakfast.  God, I loved the French!  “Café, s'il vous plaît!”
“So my dear, as you’re ready for anything, let us start the day with a pop quiz.”  He beamed, waggling his shaggy eye-brows at me.  I laughed back at him.  So this is the way we’re going to play, is it? I thought.  He’d taught hundreds of students over the years and he still loved to test us whenever an opportunity presented itself.
He laid his oversized briefcase on the table, pushing the unused plate and cutlery aside.  The waiter arrived with the coffee as the Professeur extracted a binder from the briefcase and handed it to me.  He waited until the waiter left and then gestured for me to look at the binder.
“Tell me what you think of that!”
I looked at the binder.  It contained a thin sheet of Plexiglas in a thin metal frame, like a picture frame.  Behind the Plexiglas was ….
“Hmm,” I said, examining the item.  “A vellum scroll, looks to be very good quality.  The edges are not at all ragged and there are no thin spots, rips or tears.  It’s very well preserved, so I would hazard a guess of, say, 13th or 14th century.”
His smile widened even further and he looked more like a rambunctious school kid eager to show his parent a great report card than a tenured University Professor. 
“What else?” he prompted.
I looked back to the parchment.  Something about it wasn’t adding up properly.  I looked at the lettering and things suddenly clicked into place.
“Aramaic!” I blurted.  “Now that’s really unusual.  Aramaic wasn’t a language normally used by scribes in the Middle Ages.  Nice hand though, the lettering is nice and clean and crisp.  Must have been a professional scribe with lots of experience, though why would a scribe of France in the Middle Ages write in Aramaic often enough to get that good?”
I re-read the title, throwing that little switch in my head to engage the Aramaic gears.  The rhythms of Aramaic filled my mind and I read the parchment.   “Thunder:  Perfect Mind.”  I nearly dropped the frame.
“Professeur, you’ve found a thirteenth century copy of a first century Gnostic poem?  Where?  How?”
Suddenly I was excited.  This was unheard of.  Until they’d discovered the 2,000 year old Nag Hammadi Gnostic Scrolls in 1945, Gnostic had been a dead and long forgotten philosophy.  Labeled heresy by the Christian church in the early second century, its followers had been subsequently persecuted to destruction.  How could it possibly have survived into the thirteenth century?
The Professeur was literally bouncing in his chair now. 
“Very good,” he said, “but completely incorrect!”  The delight and excitement in his voice was unmistakable.
“OK.”  I sat back, relaxing into my chair. “An excellent set-up, Professeur!  It’s a great forgery though!”
I smiled at him, expecting him to acknowledge the joke, but he didn’t.
“No, no, still wrong!”  He replied.  “The scroll has been tentatively dated to …” he glanced furtively at the empty tables around us, hesitated, lent forward and lowered his voice suddenly to deliver the coupe de gras, “the second half of the first century, around 70 AD !”
He sat back, absolutely contented with himself.  If his smile got any wider I’d swear his head would fall off.
I was stunned.  Surely not possible!  I studied the parchment again.
“No.”  I said, “Can’t be!  It’s very high quality vellum, yes, but it can’t possibly be 2,000 years old.  Its condition is much too good to be that old.”  I read some more.  The words flowed smoothly across the page.  The scribe had been excellent, as if he’d been writing in Aramaic his entire life.
“Where did you find this?”  I asked, expecting him to say somewhere in Egypt or maybe Israel or Jordan.
He smiled again.  He was obviously having a tremendous time at my expense, though I couldn’t blame him.  He turned away and pointed out across the balcony railing, toward the morning sun just peaking above the horizon. 
 “Over that way.” he said, “About 30 kilometers east and some 2,000 feet high is the Garbalan Massif.  We found the scroll there, in an amphora, buried in a cave!  And not just one amphora, but many, many!  The first amphora contained several scrolls and I’m hoping the others also contain scrolls, but soon we will know!”
I looked east, trying to see the Garbalan, though it was too far away.
Vellum scrolls are common in Europe, as they were the main source of parchment used until we invented paper.  Vellum scrolls written in Aramaic were definitely not common.  Finding caves full of stone-age art in southern France was, well, not common, but common enough that another such find would be readily acceptable to the academic community.  Finding a two thousand year old scroll in a cave in southern France was not just beyond expectation, it was beyond belief!  You only found scrolls that old in the deserts of the Middle East, most definitely not in Europe!
Many, many amphora, he’d said. It sounded like a treasure trove.  My fingers tingled in anticipation.  Two questions immediately sprang to mind. 
What the hell were Aramaic scrolls doing here in France and when could I get my hands on them!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

day 1 - flying to France

So, the new job starts.  I'm just about to get on a plane for France.  Heading to Marseille to be exact.  I'm being met there by the lead archeologist, one of my mentors from university, and he's promised to give me all the details when I get there.  This blog is going to be my journal, updated as and when I have new and exciting things to report.

Wish me luck and success.