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NOVA scienceNOW: Papyrus

Program Overview


One hundred years ago, archeologists unearthed papyrus fragments from an ancient garbage dump on the site of Oxyrhynchus, the third largest city in Egypt when Greece ruled that land. Many of the fragments were too stained and dirty to be deciphered, at least until recently. A NASA-developed multispectral imaging technology has helped papyrologists read these fragments and understand their historical significance.

This NOVA scienceNOW segment:

  • reports that Oxford University houses about 500,000 papyri fragments excavated from densely packed layers of garbage from a dump located near the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

  • explains how papyrus reeds are turned into a paper-like writing material.

  • states that multispectral imaging, originally used to see through clouds of gas in space, was used to penetrate the dirt and stains and reveal what was written on the papyrus.

  • describes how multispectral imaging makes the text evident—the fragments are exposed to infrared light, which passes through the contamination and reflects off the carbon-based ink underneath. Sensors detect this reflected light and create an image of the writing.

  • notes that the fragments reveal a great deal about daily life in Oxyrhynchus.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after the program is taped off the air.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Papyrus
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