How a Blind UT Grad Student is Solving Ancient Puzzles With His Fingertips

Daniel Smith runs his fingers over a mysterious relic. On the fifth floor of Burdine Hall, he wonders what it belongs to and where it has been. It may just hold divine secrets.

In the first year of his religious studies doctoral program at UT, Smith, 25, has spent weeks scrutinizing an ancient manuscript that tells the story of Jesus driving a demon out of a man. He must decide if the account of the exorcism mirrors those found in the canonical gospels. “It has features of Matthew and Luke,” Smith says, “but the story does not cohere to either gospel as it should.” If it stems from another source, then it may yield new information about Jesus Christ.

The task before Smith—a Michigan-native with a master’s degree in religion from Yale University—is complicated. Fragment P.Oxy 5072, the one he is studying, was discovered over a century ago in Middle Egypt in a city called Oxyrhynchus, which means “city of the sharp-nosed fish.” Between 1896 and 1907, two British papyrologists recovered nearly 500,000 ancient papyri manuscripts from the Oxyrhynchus trash dump. Dating from third century B.C.E. to seventh century C.E., most of them were public and private documents—tax receipts, government edicts, contracts, personal letters, and religious texts. Only about 5,000 of them have been transcribed, or “edited.” This includes Smith’s 2,000-year-old text, which was written in Greek on a papyrus fragment torn from the middle section of a column, with no margin words to help decipher its meaning.

As he unravels the message, Smith confronts an additional hurdle: He is blind. He lost his vision to a retinal disorder when he was 14.

Though he reads braille in English, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and is learning Coptic, the language of the blind cannot help Smith interpret this fragment. Texts dating back to the beginning of the Common Era convey their rich histories through more than words. Handwriting style, for example, can reveal a writer’s religion and when the person lived. “Semi-cursive letters that touch one another and have lots of ligatures are usually indicative of early Christian writings,” Smith says. A less-determined scholar might rely on the observations of researchers who can see to do this job. Not Smith. “I’ve spent 10 hours just feeling the fragment,” he says.

What he’s feeling isn’t the original manuscript. That artifact, about the size of an iPhone, lives in Oxford’s Sackler Library. Instead, Smith has a remarkable replica, a copy printed on special paper that swells in inked areas when heated. Swell touch paper is commonly used to represent charts and graphs in math books for the blind, but Smith and his professors wondered: Could they use it to recreate ancient documents?

They knew who to ask.

“I’d never heard of anyone using swell paper like this before, so I didn’t know if it would work,” says Vanessa Ayala, BFA ’14, who is assistive technology lab manager at UT’s Services for Students with Disabilities. Among her other responsibilities, Ayala converts coursework and textbooks into accessible formats for blind and low-vision students. “I help everyone gain access to the same information no matter what limitations they have,” she says. Smith’s challenge appealed to her immediately. The swell paper could increase Smith’s independence, allowing him to draw his own conclusions and do his own legwork.

Ayala got busy using Photoshop to isolate ancient ink marks from dirt smudges on an enlarged digital image of Smith’s fragment. Then she printed the cleaned-up version on swell paper and ran it through her tactile graphics machine. The Greek letters popped off the page. Finally, for authenticity, Ayala cut the 7-by-7-inch printout into the same shape as the original fragment, roughing it up to reflect eons of wear and tear, plus the holes left by worms. “I wanted Daniel to feel the fragility of a very old piece of papyrus,” she says, noting that tactile graphics work better for people who had sight at one time.

Ayala also converted handwriting sample charts from different centuries into tactile representations so Smith could compare them to the penmanship on his fragment and date it. Published reports tie his artifact to around 150 C.E., but Smith has his doubts. He thinks the third century is a better estimate because the fragment’s handwriting style appeared more commonly then. “I want to open the possibility that this manuscript is not as old as believed,” he says. “We have very few pieces of material evidence from the second century, so the early dating is quite provocative and, in my estimation, unfounded.” Smith will complete his assessment of the two-sided fragment—the reverse side describes a conversation between Jesus and a disciple—and submit his final conclusions later this year.

The swell paper project has resounding implications. Smith and Ayala have helped make it possible for other blind students to participate in papyrology, an academic area that once excluded them.

This willingness to test new technologies is part of a larger trend within UT’s Religious Studies Department. “We have quickly become a hub for the study of ancient manuscripts,” says assistant professor Geoffrey Smith (no relation). Young scholars, like Daniel Smith, are drawn to the department’s use of cutting-edge tools, such as digital microscopes and multispectral imaging, to analyze extremely old works. Students want to make insights about unpublished papyri fragments from Oxyrhynchus and excavation sites around the world. They’re finding those opportunities at UT. “Students have the potential to discover something new about Jesus’ ministry,” Professor Smith says, “and that’s exciting.”

Later this year, the professor and his colleague Brent Landau will take a group of students to Oxford to interact with some fragments firsthand. Daniel Smith will join them. “I’m looking forward to what he can teach us,” the professor says. “Will he conceive of a manuscript with a broader view of language because he’s not dependent on sight?”

Smith has five years of doctoral study, and a millennium of documents to edit, to answer that question. Much of that time he will spend relying on the wisdom of his fingertips.

Illustration by Jon Krause

 
 
 

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