Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Gnostic Scrolls on vellum
While truly ancient documents are clay or stone carvings, documents from 2,000 years ago were usually scrolls made of either papyrus or vellum. Papyrus is made from the papyrus plant, found in
and for centuries it formed a major part of their economy. The plant is stripped of its tough outer coating and the remaining core split into long thin strips, pressed and soaked in water for several days. The strips are then laid out in a cross hatched pattern, pressed flat and allowed to dry. At the end of the process you have a sheet of papyrus parchment which is surprisingly tough. Waterproof, tear-proof, it can be soaked and not fall apart. It’s actually much tougher than the paper we make today. The only downside is that the end product has a smooth side and a rough side, so usually only the smooth side is used for writing. As it’s a plant based product it keeps well in dry desert caves, but not so well in warm, humid climates like southern Egypt where mold and mildew tend to destroy it fairly quickly. I expect that explains why most papyrus scrolls are found on the other side of the France Mediterranean.
Vellum is an entirely different beast, no pun intended. It’s actually very thin animal skins, usually young sheep, goat or calf. The skin is soaked, de-haired, scrapped clean, then stretched flat and scrapped until it’s thin and flexible. I once watched a Discovery Channel special on making vellum and it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. Cleaning the skin is both gross and messy to say the least. Once the skin is cleaned, stretched and dried, it’s scraped repeatedly until it’s very thin and fairly flexible. Each skin is then cut into rectangular pages and in our case the rectangles are folded in half to form the leaves of a book. Each of our books contains between fifteen and twenty sheets, to make a booklet of thirty to forty pages. Each book is then covered in a heavier vellum, with a loose front flap that folds over to protect the edges. The whole thing is then rolled up to form a cylinder about three inches in diameter and eleven inches long, a scroll. Our scrolls were then wrapped one more time in heavier vellum and dipped in wax to seal them.
Henri’s procedure is working well and we’re progressing through the scrolls slowly but steadily. We’ve built up a nice rhythm and we’re now producing scanned pages every second day or so. Each of the jars opened so far contain between 30 and 40 rolled up documents, so we’ve got lots of scrolls to work with. Now that we have actual scans to work with my time in the lab is reaching an end and it’s time I started my real task, translating.
The scanned images are loaded into a computerized database, referenced by the amphora number, the scroll number and the page number. I can check out an image from the database, much like checking a book out of the library and work on a translation. I do the translation on my local computer and when I’m happy with the results I check the translation back into the database and link it to the original image.
Everything is stored here on the main system in Marseille, with nightly backups transmitted to a master system in
, where the Professeur continues with his analysis. There, he’ll have complete access to what we’re doing here and we’ll have a complete backup of all our work just in case the computer here has a problem. The system itself is probably the best I’ve ever worked on. Very fast, very flexible, with a full search capability on not only the translation texts but also on the images as well. ‘Slick’ is a bit of an understatement! Paris
The Professeur has been talking about getting several more translators but so far I’m the only one here. I’m a bit surprised, as I thought the Professeur would have made some sort of public announcement by now and we’d be flooded with researchers wanting to join the project and get access to the documents. He hasn’t. It’s most unusual for him, but he’s playing his cards very close to his chest. I know he meets with the Chancellor of the University on a regular basis, but why they haven’t announced anything about the discovery yet is not clear. He’s due back on-site in a few days, so I’ll ask him then.