Digital detective work: Researchers of the University of Graz reunite fragment with manuscript after 1000 years
It is not often that researchers manage to attribute a fragment of manuscript – previously presumed lost – to a specific codex. Thanks to the latest digitisation techniques, University of Graz researchers Ephrem Aboud Ishac and Erich Renhart were able to match the upper half of a parchment sheet which is now in the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, to a Syriac manuscript from the 5th or 6th century, which is held at the British Library in London.
Ishac and Renhart are manuscript specialists at the VESTIGIA Manuscript Research Centre of the University of Graz, whose research is based on technology they have developed: their patented, mobile digitising table enables the researchers to scan valuable documents, no matter where they are, for instance in any monastic library anywhere in the world, without impact on the objects themselves, and with no need for the cultural asset to be removed from its location.
“Successes like this are unthinkable without the digitisation of repositories all over the world. Open access policies and rapid advances in the digital humanities enable researchers to work and network even in these times of travel restrictions, and to unearth some age-old treasures,” explains Prof. Erich Renhart, the head of VESTIGIA in Graz. The research centre is a significant contributor to the preservation of written cultural heritage, dedicated to the academic study and recording of documents and to making them accessible to a broad international public.
The pages of the London manuscript have already been digitised and are accessible online. Amongst other things the manuscript text includes the story of the martyrdom of Saint Alexander and Saint Theodolus. The Yerevan fragment is undoubtedly a section of the Passio Alexandri, and the only Syriac source for this text. The researchers believe the Yerevan fragment was separated from its codex a very long time ago. The manuscript originated in what is now northern Iraq, and was taken, probably in the 10th century, from the northern part of Mesopotamia to Deir el Surian, a Syrian monastery in the Egyptian desert. From there the manuscript made its way to London. The fragment is believed to have been removed before the manuscript made this long journey, and was then taken, most likely with other documents, to Armenia.
Ephrem Aboud Ishac is particularly happy about this find: “Not only has a tiny piece of a puzzle fallen into place but this also enables us to document how cultural objects have been covering great distances for many centuries, and to reunite, at least on a virtual level, evidence of a culture that has also been scattered to the winds.”
Ao.Univ.-Prof. Dr. Erich Renhart
VESTIGIA Manuscript Research Centre
University of Graz
Tel.: 0043 (0)316 380 1445