Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
How the Library of Congress Unrolled a 2000-Year-Old Buddhist Scroll (atlasobscura.com)
186 points by sohkamyung 36 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

By 2016 we had figured out how to take very high resolution microCT scans of things with ink on them and "unroll" them virtually. This was successfully used to read text from a scroll that had been turned into a column of charcoal in a fire. The ink is different enough from the parchment, even when both are partially combusted, to make the technique work.

Figure 1 is ... striking:



Hey! Is 'we' you who has presented this at the Bruker User Meeting? I'm the guy who presented the zebrafish gills story this year :) Your work with virtually unscrolling the scrolls is amazing, keep on trucking! Have a good day!

Hey, that was me! What a pleasant surprise, you made my day. Have a good one yourself!

Come on, you can't mention zebrafish gills without actually telling the story!

Sorry, didn't want to hijack the thread :)

We were able to show that the gills of zebrafish grow and get more 'sparse' with endurance training. This means - to our understanding - that the water can more easily penetrate the gills and is transported through the gills more efficient, i.e. the oxygen is extracted from the water more efficiently.

Here's a little bit of the backstory on my 'work' blog: https://micro.tomo.graphics/manuscripts/2019/08/26/adaptatio... And here's the manuscript on bioRxiv: https://doi.org/10.1101/744300

Just yesterday we submitted the 'minor revisions' for our submission of the manuscript to PLOS One :)

Exactly, nice search engine fu :)

Here's a bit more information: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21782922

Even papyrus scrolls not already charred by historical events (e.g., at Pompeii and Herculaneum) were often considered incense and burned by their discoverers.

One shudders....

I always wonder if all those reports are real, are inflated (to show some bad-looking-past and how noble we are today) or if was a form of hiding a kind of robbery (see, I found something, but wasn't possible to bring it to the museum/king/whatever because... my team just burned it).

in 1778, a Danish classical scholar named Niels Iversen Schow bought a papyrus scroll from a hoard alleged to have been discovered near the pyramids at Giza, whereupon the “native” sellers reportedly tore up and burned the rest so as to enjoy the pungent smoke.

-- Keith Houston, The Book https://www.worldcat.org/title/book-a-cover-to-cover-explora...


James G. Keenan, “The History of the Discipline,” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger Bagnall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 59.

Considering most people couldn't read, I believe it

That's truly amazing.

I can't even fathom how to handle that, let alone how to _read_ something out of it.

Striking is an understatement.

I love digital archaeology. Literally spent an afternoon recently watching a "virtual unwrapping" of the Herculaneum Papyri found in the ashes of Mount Vesuvius ;)

Reading the Herculaneum Papyri: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow


Digital Restoration Initiative @ UKentucky


> Finally translated, the final scroll has no title, beginning, or end

How apropos wrt Buddha's non-teaching. Given more time (decay) the teaching would be fully revealed :)

I love this. The thing that got me into conversation/restoration was the Baumgartner Restoration[0] youtube channel which lead me to the conserving a michelangelo [1] by The Met from there I just kept going.

Of course, this is another level in fragility and love the care, precaution, and respect these teams place into preserving pieces, meaning and understanding of history.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvZe6ZCbF9xgbbbdkiodPKQ [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-7BKDfaZpg

Ironic to work so hard preserving something from a tradition based on impermanence that says if you meet the Buddha to kill him. Not that there's any reason not to preserve it.

Sigh that "Koan" is not literally about killing the Buddha. It is recognizing the divinity is not in an idol or image, including other people. That strand of Buddhism says enlightenment is first found within, and after you find it you see it also in the external world, not in a specific form but you see it everywhere.

Most likely that Koan comes from Linji Yixuan aka 1600 years ago, but Buddhism is likely 2400 or older years ago.


Linji Yixuan also has another saying "If you meet your forefather, kill him" once again this is not literal but is once again excessive reverence to other relationships instead of finding family in all things not just a specific forefather.

A similar statement would be Jesus Christ in the Gospels such as Luke saying you can't be his follower if you love your father, wife, children, siblings, etc more than him. Jesus demanded you love him more than you love your own life, and your duty to his faith is greater than your traditions saying "I must wait" to follow you for first I must bury my dead father and so on. [Once again it is probably not supposed to be taken literally for the Gospels choose certain metaphors for dramatic effect about how one organizes ones priorities.]

I never thought about the similarities before, that's an interesting point. You always hear about how the Bible is a collection of many different genres of writing, some which no longer exist, so it's confusing to people with no point of reference. Song of Solomon, for example, is just hilarious if you think of it as a detailed account of actual events and people. These concepts were probably spreading across cultures for so long before being deposited in a book or scroll.

Very good chance the GP left those words at the river, hopefully you will too unless it's purely an academic study.

Even though detachment from the illusion of matter is a goal of many forms of Buddhism, it is clearly necessary to use matter to achieve this goal. That is why zen masters write books in which they say books are worthless. And that is why they use reasoning to show that reason can only take us so far. They understand we still need the vehicles, but make it clear that they only serve the purpose of getting us to the destination.

Yept the "Middle Way" is both a rejection of pure asceticism and pure hedonoism, but a middle path between extremes. Material things can be used temporary but the goal is "to unfocus" and see beyond material things.

Reason and Language are useful as well, but the various buddhist teachers over 2400 years whole point is to unfocus and see beyond the limitation of how we try to use language to bring an artificial form of order that is not true understanding, nor is it true love or compassion. Instead it is a form of "clinging" that makes things feel overly familiar and safe when the nature of reality is constant change and finding peace with this "uncanny" and thus scary reality if we allow it to scare us in such a way.

Precisely. IMHO, a literal understanding of Buddhist writings frequently leads to absurd radicalisms. Many teachings, especially in the Zen tradition (which I'm most familiar with) make use of rhetoric and reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate the shortcomings of reason. They're not meant to be taken at face value. I doubt very much that a monk severed his apprentice's finger from the body as an educational device. When you read some Zen masters that dealt with actual problems, you see that they were reasonable, practical and compassionate.

It’s figurative, but unfortunately people do kill Buddhas, and continue to try and do so today. From physically attacking them, to poisonings, little has changed in 2000 years.

Is there an english translation of this?

Edit: translation is in this video starting at 18:35 https://www.loc.gov/item/webcast-8586/


I love this type of thing! In today's age of digital impermanence, to think simple birch bark can preserve a message from so long ago.

But one thing that stood out from the beginning of the article and wasn't satisfactorily addressed was the fact that breathing on such a fragile object could wreck the entire operation...why didn't they just wear surgical masks?

I mean, they went through all the trouble of pre-humidifying the scroll, laying special little glass paper-weights and even spraying each bit when necessary. But a single unexpected cough or sneeze could have made everyone have a very bad day!

I guess they probably did... the explanation with the breathing is just to show how fragile it really was.

> In 2005, conservators received the scroll in a Parker Pen box on a bed of cotton.

Surprisingly light on details of its origin. Part of the US war loot from Peshawar perhaps?

You can google it, the 'perhaps' seems completely unwarranted.

The Library purchased the single scroll from a British antiquities dealer in 2003.


So the moisture made it flexible enough to unravel? It looks amazing I can hardly tell it is so old. Like in old paintings where you can see the brushwork and feel some connection to the artist long after they have passed away, I think there is something similar here with the characters plus the doodle in the center.

The author mentioned that the conservators used bamboo spatulas a couple of times. Is there a particular reason that they use bamboo versus some other type of wood or perhaps metal?

I've previously looked for Buddhist artefacts (not too hard though) and not found any from before CE. Is this the oldest direct evidence of Buddhism?

There is epigraphic evidence (the inscriptions of the Emperor Ashoka) for Buddhism in BCE times.

I'd looked at that but understood that the Buddhist parts were from 200CE, added to dharma inscriptions from 300-200BCE. Thanks for sharing, do you know other BCE sources?

Feels like a desecration

I disagree. What's the point of having a scroll if you are unable to read it? Now it is in a form(digital) to last another thousand years.

Because it is an object from our ancestors. And the digital form will probably be destroyed long before you imagine since it’s accessibility is dependent on an industrial system remaining stable enough to deliver it

I think it'd be interesting if they tried to read it with some form of tomography.

That's a different scroll.

Sure, but 'reading an old scroll with tomography' has been done...

In some of the recent discussion of archival (see the Internet Archive / Archive Team and projects including Yahoo Groups, Google+, Flikr, and more), is the nature of past historical archival.

Records are in general scarce. They're special. They're highly skewed in what, who, where, and when they cover.

This affects traditional history and historiography which are document-centric, in that their scope is limited by available documents.

(There are other models and methods of history, some of which approach anthropology in looking at physical artefacts, some based on genetics and other methods. These are illuminating as well, though of necessity omit specific textual context.)

That situation has changed, due to improvements in media, reproduction, literacy, and now, raw data capture. The rate, quantity, and intention of recording is completely different today than 500, or 1,000, or 6,000 (the origins of writing) ago. Then, both recording and storage were highly intentional, for all that implies. Now, it's avoidance of leaving records that is intentional.

I'm a fan of the Internet Archive's work. I'm also cognisant of the potential risks and intrusions that it implies. The Archive tries to make such negative disruptions as small as possible, but the challenges remain.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact