NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Great Surviving Manuscripts
by Rebecca Deusser

Infinite Secrets homepage

Manuscripts: Herculaneum Papyri | Codex Sinaiticus | Madrid Codex | Dead Sea Scrolls | Dunhuang Cave documents | Novgorod Birch Bark Manuscripts and Wax Tablets | Ellesmere Manuscript | Codex Leicester | Gutenberg Bible

Books are fragile things. That is why old books are so precious to us—they've survived the ravages of time. Imagine, then, how precious centuries-old manuscripts are, those like the Archimedes palimpsest that were hand-written on parchment and other materials long before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Generations upon generations of caretakers have ensured the astonishing longevity of these rare documents, which allow scholars and laypeople alike to peer inside cultures long gone from the world. Here, have a glimpse at some of the most significant early manuscripts to have turned up in modern times—as well as the first printed book, which spelled the end of the handwritten volume.

Herculaneum Papyri

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried two cities—Pompeii, well known today as an archeological site, and Herculaneum, once a seaside resort for wealthy Romans. In the mid-18th century, workers at Herculaneum discovered more than 1,000 papyrus scrolls that were singed and covered with debris when volcanic mud buried the city. Scholars later determined that Philodemus, a philosopher and poet who was a pivotal figure in the transmission of Greek philosophical ideas to Rome, wrote most of these works.

The Herculaneum Papyri comprise the only extensive library of texts to survive from the classical world. Because the scrolls are extremely fragile, they were left untouched for centuries. But in the 1990s, an international group of scholars began the delicate process of unrolling and interpreting Philodemus' texts, which include his ideas on poetics, rhetoric, and music. The papyri are stored at the National Museum in Naples, Italy.

Herculaneum codex

A fragment of Philodemus' manuscript found at Herculaneum

Enlarge this image

Codex Sinaiticus

At the foot of Mount Sinai outside Cairo sits a small Greek Orthodox monastery called St. Catherine's, named for the Russian saint. In 1844, the German scholar Constantine Tischendorf visited the monastery, where he discovered more than 300 parchment leaves of the Old Testament and New Testament in Greek dating back to the 4th century. Collectively, these later became known as the Codex Sinaiticus, which constitutes one of the earliest versions of the Greek Bible.

When the Christian monks were unwilling to loan the ancient scrolls to Tischendorf for scholarly study, he appealed to the Russian czar, Alexander II, who wielded power over both the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. Tischendorf promised Alexander he would turn over the valuable manuscripts to the Russian Orthodox Church after he translated them. The czar ordered the monks, who had guarded the codex for centuries, to give it to Tischendorf, who then went on to translate it. He published his translation in 1862. In 1933, Russia sold the Codex Sinaiticus to the British government, which now houses it in the British National Museum.

St. Catherine's monastery

St. Catherine's, a Greek Orthodox monastery nestled beside Mount Sinai outside Cairo, still functions today as a monastery and religious community.

Enlarge this image

Madrid Codex

Since its discovery in 1860, the Madrid Codex, named for the city where it was found after hundreds of years of obscurity and where it rests today, has illuminated many mysteries of ancient Mayan culture, religion, and scholarship. A Spanish priest or explorer likely brought the codex to Spain in the 16th century, though no one knows for sure how it arrived in Europe from Guatemala, where it probably originated.

The longest of the existing Maya hieroglyphic manuscripts, the codex contains over 250 almanacs, which describe events of daily life during the 260-day Mesoamerican ritual calendar. Scholars believe the codex may be a 14th- or 15th-century copy of Mayan scholarship from the peak of the civilization's power. The entire Mayan era lasted from roughly 2500 B.C. to A.D. 1500.

The codex's so-called screenfold books, 56 pages in total, are long, double-sided bark pages rich with detailed glyphs painted over a smooth surface of hardened lime paste. Mayan priests or nobility might have used these now fragile manuscripts as personal date-books or registers of the Mayan dynasties. The codex dates to before the Spanish conquest of Mexico and has survived numerous abuses, including more than a thousand years of exposure to tropical weather and, in the 16th century, book burnings by the Spanish clergy.

Only three other Mayan codices remain today. The Dresden and Paris Codices are on display in the cities for which they were named. The fourth codex, the Grolier Codex, is named after the Grolier Club in New York, a bibliographic society that owned the manuscript in the 1970s.

Madrid codex

In this detail from an almanac contained in the Madrid Codex, a hunter returns home with his kill.

Enlarge this image

Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd exploring caves near Qumran, a ruin on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in Israel, discovered a collection of jars containing seven parchment scrolls. The shepherd took the scrolls to a Bethlehem antiques dealer, hoping to make a profit. The dealer bought the scrolls and sold them to the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, who collected religious manuscripts on behalf of his church. Within a year of the original find, scholars around the world had heard about the scrolls and flocked to Jerusalem to examine them. When they realized the importance of the collection, they launched an extensive search for more scrolls in the caves surrounding the original find.

Archeologists worked on the Qumran site, which includes 11 caves, until 1956, when the last finds were uncovered there. The parchment scrolls they found, 870 in total, vary in degree of preservation. Some are nearly complete, while only fragments remain of others. Interpreting the scrolls was a painstakingly slow process. Over 40 years passed before scholars made the scrolls' contents available to the public through publications and exhibitions around the world.

The Dead Sea Scrolls hold great religious and historical value, offering glimpses into theological and cultural aspects of life during the time of Jesus. Before the find at Qumran, the oldest known Hebrew Bible dated to around A.D. 1000. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the colloquial language of Palestinian Jews during the last two centuries B.C. and the first two centuries A.D., the scrolls are thought to have originated as part of a library that belonged to a Jewish sect known as the Dead Sea Sect. Members of this group hid themselves away in the Qumran caves during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans in A.D. 66. The scrolls are now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Dead Sea Scroll fragment

This brittle page comes from the Scroll of the Rule, which outlines strict rules of religious conduct and cites possible punishments for violators.

Enlarge this image

Dunhuang Cave documents

At the turn of the 20th century, archeologists excavating in caves near a Buddhist temple in Dunhuang discovered a collection of manuscripts. Dunhuang, located in Gansu Province in the far northwest of China, was an important city on the Silk Road, the main trade route between the Roman Empire and China, and no fewer than 15 languages are represented in the collection.

The trove of manuscripts brought out from the Dunhuang caves includes poems, religious texts such as the Buddha's sermons, treatises on psychology and feng shui philosophy, military reports, even prescriptions for arthritis and other ailments. The majority of the Dunhuang materials date from between 100 B.C. and A.D. 1200.

Today, more than a century after the discovery, the texts are popular primary sources for scholarly study all over the world, so much so that "Dunhuang Studies" has emerged as its own research discipline. Experts have dated some of the Dunhuang Cave documents to only 500 years after the Buddha's death, making them among the oldest texts of their kind. The Dunhuang manuscripts are housed in four major institutions: the National Library of China, the British Library, the National Library in France, and the Institute of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Dunhuang caves

The Dunhuang caves where archeologists found rare manuscripts are decorated with colorful frescoes, like this Bodhisattva, which probably dates to the 7th to 10th centuries A.D.

Enlarge this image

Novgorod Birch Bark Manuscripts and Wax Tablets

In its medieval heyday, Novgorod, a city situated between St. Petersburg and Moscow, was a center of literacy and literary culture. Most of the city's residents could read and write, and many authors lived and worked there. Since 1932, when excavations began, archeologists have unearthed approximately 1,000 manuscripts in the Novgorod area, and they continue to unearth texts in the area today.

Many of the Novgorod manuscripts are colloquial letters and stories carved into either birch bark scrolls or wax tablets known as tseras. Most of them date from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The soft, smooth textures of birch tree bark and poured wax were easily scratched with a sharp metal, wood, or bone tool functioning as a pen. These readily available writing materials were much less costly than parchment or ink and allowed people of every social class—peasants, artisans, merchants, and so on—to participate in writing.

Topics range from school notes a young boy jotted down in a class to original speeches and letters written by a prominent Novgorod statesman. Because the authors of many of the manuscripts were common citizens rather than the literary elite, their writings provide a rare window into everyday life at the time, and scholars value the collection for this reason in particular. The Novgorod manuscripts are kept as part of an extensive collection of local archeological materials in the city's State United Museum.

Novgorod wax tablet

A wax tablet containing psalms of David written in Cyrillic in the early 11th century

Enlarge this image

Ellesmere Manuscript

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in the Middle Ages, is one of the first English literary works. An entertaining story involving Chaucer and 22 companions, who accompany him on a fictional pilgrimage to Archbishop Thomas Becket's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury Tales has helped rank Chaucer in the minds of many scholars as second only to Shakespeare among English authors.

The Ellesmere Manuscript is one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales. Bound in leather, it is the basis for most editions of this famous work, as it is in excellent condition and is elaborately decorated. (Each tale bears a detailed portrait of the teller at the beginning.) Literary historians believe it was copied less than ten years after Chaucer's death in 1400, making it a particularly valuable record of his work.

The family of the Earl of Ellesmere, a British politician and philanthropist who died in 1857, sold the manuscript in 1917 to a prominent American financier, Henry Huntington, for his personal library. The Ellesmere Manuscript is now held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Ellesmere fragment

An intricately detailed page from the Ellesmere Manuscript showing an illustration of Geoffrey Chaucer on horseback

Enlarge this image

Codex Leicester

Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance artist, scientist, and thinker, wrote the Codex Leicester in Milan between 1506 and 1510 on 18 loose, double-sided sheets of linen paper. The manuscript is named after Englishman Thomas Coke, the Earl of Leicester, whose family owned it from 1717 to 1980. The codex records Leonardo's thoughts in sepia ink on a variety of topics, from astronomy to hydrology, and it includes dozens of his sketches, drawings, and diagrams. Only 31 of Leonardo's original manuscripts survive today—about a third, scholars believe, of those he likely wrote in his lifetime.

The notebooks are distinctive because they feature rare examples of Leonardo's use of "mirror writing," which he wrote from right to left and backwards. Experts are not sure why Leonardo used mirror writing, which only appears normal in a mirror's reflection. He may have used the technique to prevent others from reading or stealing his ideas or to prevent ink from smudging (he was left-handed). Many experts believe that writing backwards might simply have been more comfortable for him.

In 1994, William H. Gates III, cofounder of the Microsoft Corporation, bought this manuscript for $30.8 million at auction. Leonardo's codex has been on display at numerous museums since Gates purchased it, but it will soon be installed in a climate-controlled vault in Gates' Medina, Washington home.

Leicester fragment

This detail from the Codex Leicester shows two men balancing on a seesaw. In the accompanying text, Leonardo describes how objects move through the air.

Enlarge this image

Gutenberg Bible

Though this text is not a handwritten manuscript, it holds great value because it is the first book widely printed in the West. In the mid-1450s, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, invented a movable-type system that allowed for mechanized production of printed books. The first complete book Gutenberg printed was the Bible, which he ran off his Mainz, Germany press around 1456.

Historians believe Gutenberg printed about 200 copies of the two-volume Bible in the original printing, but today only 48 copies of the text still exist. Just three of these are considered to be in perfect condition, while the rest are only partial copies. After each book came off the printing press, local artisans added large capital letters and decorative flourishes by hand to each book. The result is that no two copies of the Bible are exactly the same.

The Gutenberg Bible marked the beginning of the mass-production of affordable books. Ironically, perfect surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible are now so costly and rare that they are kept in some of the world's most vaunted institutions. The Library of Congress has one of the complete copies, printed on vellum (a fine-grained animal hide), but visitors may only view it through a thick sheet of protective glass. The other two perfect copies are held in the British National Library.

Back to top

Gutenberg bible page

A page from the Gutenberg Bible, published in Latin, which visitors can view at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Enlarge this image

Rebecca Deusser is NOVA online's intern.

Send feedback Image credits
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions