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Ghostly Faces and Invisible Verse Found in Medieval Text

Ghostly faces and lines of verse previously invisible to the naked eye have been uncovered in the oldest surviving medieval manuscript written entirely in Welsh.

"The Black Book of Carmarthen," dating to 1250, contains texts from the ninth through 12th centuries, including some of the earliest references to Arthur and Merlin.

"It's easy to think we know all we can know about a manuscript like the 'Black Book,' but to see these ghosts from the past brought back to life in front of our eyes has been incredibly exciting," Myriah Williams, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement. "The drawings and verse that we're in the process of recovering demonstrate the value of giving these books another look."

Ghostly Faces Ancient Manuscript
The ghostly faces as visible under different parts of the spectrum. National Library of Wales

In 1904, Sir John Williams, the founder of the National Library of Wales, bought the book. Only recently did Myriah Williams and Paul Russell, a professor at Cambridge's department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNC), examine its pages.

"The margins of manuscripts often contain medieval and early modern reactions to the text, and these can cast light on what our ancestors thought about what they were reading," Williams explained. "The 'Black Book' was particularly heavily annotated before the end of the 16th century."

Williams and Russell said they think a man named Jaspar Gryffyth, a 16th-century owner of the book who copied his name in Hebrew onto the book, likely erased such "reactions." These verses and doodles would've been added to the manuscript over centuries as it was passed from one owner to another.

Road workers stumble over 10,000-year-old find 0:52

Using UV light and photo-editing software, Williams and Russell revealed glimpses of some of the erased doodles. For instance, one page of the newly visible work includes ghostly faces and a line of text accompanying them, which date to the 14th or 15th century, Williams said. On the following page, a full verse, possibly dating to the 13th century, came to light. "There is one more drawing so far that we are still working on," Williams said.

In one entry, the legendary hero Arthur describes the virtues of his men in order to gain entrance to a court, the researchers noted. Two prophetic poems are attributed to the famed Merlin, as well, with the first poem of the book a conversation between him and Welsh poet Taliesin.

"What we have discovered may only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be discovered as imaging techniques are enhanced," Russell said in the statement. "The manuscript is extremely valuable and incredibly important — yet there may still be so much we don't know about it."

— Jeanna Bryner, Live Science

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared on Live Science. Read the entire story here. Follow Jeanna Bryner on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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