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Technology

What a Croc

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This is a tale of ancient texts and modern technology, and it all begins with a mummy: in 1899, Phoebe Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst, sponsored a dig in Egypt by archeologists from Oxford and the University of California at Berkeley, who, spurred by the discovery of the first papyrus manuscripts in Egypt, were eager to scour the desert for more. After months of searching, the team seemed to strike pay dirt at the ancient Egyptian settlement of Tebtunis, west of the Nile. Workers had uncovered some mummified crocodiles, and it was well known that the reptiles were held sacred to the crocodile god Sobek. It wouldn’t be long, the archeologists thought, before they found human mummies and perhaps papyri too. After several weeks had passed, however, the Berkeley team realized it had stumbled upon a crocodile cemetery covering acres, filled with thousands of mummified crocs but hardly any human mummies. And, so it seemed, hardly any papyri.

Then one day a workman who’d exhumed yet another crocodile chucked it aside. The mummy’s wrappings broke open. The reptile inside was covered with papyri--apparently to help preserve its shape. Among the manuscripts, some of which dated from the third century b.c., were works by Homer, Virgil, and Euripides and a fragment of a lost play by Sophocles. The surprised archeologists saved the papyri and dumped the crocodiles, except for a few that remain today at Berkeley.

Sixty years ago, conservators mounted the papyri between flexible transparent sheets of vinyl. It seemed like a good strategy at the time. But over the decades the vinyl has cracked. Even worse, the vinyl attracts static electricity, causing the fragile papyri to stick to the sheets. This has made it nearly impossible to separate the papyri from the vinyl without tearing them. Anthony Bliss, curator of Berkeley’s collection of rare manuscripts, turned to the university’s engineering school to help solve the problem of safely remounting the papyri. The engineers knew that a Berkeley company called Ion Systems had a machine that might prove helpful. That machine consists of a modest six-inch fan that blows ionized air; it’s normally used to control static during the manufacture of silicon chips. But the Berkeley engineers thought it would work just as well on the papyri.

The machine indeed worked extremely well, says Bliss, making it possible to safely remove the papyri from their aging vinyl covers. About 200 of the ancient documents are now securely mounted in glass, but the collection has thousands more, some unread--which may include lost works of ancient literature. Says Bliss, I see several lifetimes of work still to do in this collection.

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