Robot to Scan Oldest Copy of Homer's Illiad

Posted on June 6, 2007

The oldest copy of Homer's The Iliad is being scanned in 3-D by a special robot so that anyone will be able to get a glimpse of this rare manuscript that has never been available to the public.

A team of scholars traveled to a medieval library in Venice to create an ultra-precise 3-D copy of the ancient manuscript -- complete with every wrinkle, rip and imperfection -- using a laser scanner mounted on a robot arm. A high-resolution, 3-D copy of the entire 645-page parchment book, plus a searchable transcription, will be made available online under a Creative Commons license.

The Venetus A is the oldest existing copy of Homer's Iliad and the primary source for all modern editions of the poem. It lives in Venice at the ancient Public Library of St. Mark. It is easily damaged. Few people have seen it. The last photographic copy was made in 1901. I was lucky enough to see the manuscript when I went to Venice with my husband, Christopher Blackwell, who is part of a team organized by the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies to photograph and digitize the ancient book.

The idea is "to use our 3-D data to create a 'virtual book' showing the Venetus in its natural form, in a way that few scholars would ever be able to access," says Matt Field, a University of Kentucky researcher who scanned the pages. "It's not often that you see this kind of collaboration between the humanities and the technical fields." Venice is not the most convenient work site. All the gear had to come by boat and be carried or dragged up the stairs of the library. Built in the 1500s, the library has been renovated periodically, but its builders never envisioned a need for big lights, a motorized cradle, 17 computers or wireless internet.

This is an amazing project that illustrates the benefits of new technology. The original was locked away and only authorized scholars ever got to see it. Now students of all ages will be able to get a look at this priceless and fascinating manuscript.

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