Reading the Herculaneum Papyri

This one’s a bit old, but is still worth mentioning … there’s a new method/project afoot to reveal what’s in the Herculaneum Papyri. An excerpt from the coverage in the  Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The scrolls contained ancient philosophical and learned writings. But they were so badly damaged — turned to carbon by the volcanic heat — that they crumbled when scholars first tried to open them centuries later.

The remaining scrolls, stored away in Italy and France, haven’t been read — or even unrolled — since A.D. 79.

Now, a computer scientist from the University of Kentucky hopes that modern digital technology will allow him to peer inside two of the fragile scrolls — without physically opening them — and unlock secrets they have held for almost 2,000 years.

Brent Seales, a professor of engineering in the UK computer-science department, will use an X-ray CT scanning system to collect interior images of the scrolls’ rolled-up pages. Then, he and his colleagues hope to digitally “unroll” the scrolls on a computer screen so scholars can read them.

“It will be a challenge because today these things look more like charcoal briquettes than scrolls,” Seales said. “But we’re using a noninvasive scanning system, based on medical technology, that lets you slice through an object and develop a three-dimensional data set without having to open it, just as you would do a CT scan on a human body.” The two scrolls that Seales and his team will work on are stored at the French National Academy in Paris. The UK group will spend July working there.

Their system was developed at UK through the EDUCE project, or Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration, which Seales launched through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Experts say that if the UK system works as well as hoped, it could provide a safe new way to decipher and preserve more scrolls from Herculaneum, as well as other ancient books, manuscripts and documents that are too fragile to be opened.

“No one has yet really figured out a way to open them,” says Roger Macfarlane, a professor of classics at Brigham Young University who also has worked on scrolls from Herculaneum. “If Brent is successful, it would be a huge, potentially monumental step forward.”

Seales admits that there are hurdles, the biggest being the carbon-based ink thought to have been used on the scrolls. He says that because the papyrus in the scrolls was turned to carbon by the fury of Vesuvius, it might be impossible to visually separate the writing from the pages.

“The open question is, will we be able to read the writing?” Seales said. “There is a chance that we won’t be able to do it with our current machine and that we’ll have to re-engineer some things. But if that’s the case, that’s what we will do.”

If it works, what will they find?

The best guess is that the scrolls contain writings by Philodemus, a Roman writer and Epicurean philosopher born about 110 B.C. Philodemus is not considered a classical thinker of the first rank, but he was a contemporary of Cicero. He taught Virgil and is thought to have influenced the Roman poet Horace.

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One thought on “Reading the Herculaneum Papyri

  1. Pingback: Herculaneum Papyri and the EDUCE Project: Update « rogueclassicism

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