During the first excavation of the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum, the team unearthed the villa’s entire library, more than 1,800 scrolls still tightly rolled and neatly stacked in shelves. That was in 1754, 1,675 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius instantly carbonized organized material in clouds of superheated gases and ash and then buried the city in 60 feet of hard volcanic rock. The volcano destroyed the city, and at the same time preserved the only complete ancient library in the world.
Naturally scholars were desperate to read those scrolls which could contain a wealth of long-lost texts. Early attempts at unrolling the scrolls did identify a few Epicurean texts, but unrolling carbonized papyrus almost certainly results in its destruction, and the vast majority of the villa’s scrolls were left to the hopefully more tender mercies of the future. Non-invasive technology like X-rays and CT scans were deployed, but with little success.
Ultrabright synchroton X-rays has been successful where other imaging techniques have failed, reading erased works by Galen, virtually opening a 17th century mystery box and recovering the image of a hopelessly tarnished daguerreotype. In 2015, the power of the synchroton particle collider was first deployed on Herculaneum papyri. It was a test of the possibilities and the results were very encouraging, albeit limited. The work proceeds apace, however, and two scrolls from the L’Institut de France are now being scanned by the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchroton science facility.
The use of carbon ink is one of the main reasons these scrolls have evaded deciphering, according to [University of Kentucky’s Professor Brent Seales]. Unlike metal-based inks, such as the iron gall used to write medieval documents, carbon ink has a density similar to that of the carbonized papyrus on which it sits. Therefore, it appears invisible in X-ray scans.
“We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization. First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible, and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits. In addition, we believe strongly—and contrary to conventional wisdom–that tomography does indeed capture subtle, non-density-based evidence of ink, even when it is invisible to the naked eye in the scan data. The machine learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it–pixel by pixel–from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is—voxel by voxel—in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragments. The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader.”
You can learn more about the study of the carbonized scrolls, past, present and future, in a live-streamed discussion from the Getty Villa. It will be shown on the Getty’s YouTube channel from 4-6PM PST (7-9 PM EST).
Speaking of Herculaneum and the Getty, Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri, the seminal exhibition at the Getty Villa, ends a week from Monday. For those of us who haven’t been able to make it to Malibu to visit this extraordinary assemblage of statuary, frescoes, mosaic floors and more than a thousand of those famed carbonized papyrus scrolls, the Getty will be broadcasting a special curatorial tour of the exhibition live on its Facebook page on Thursday, October 24th, at 9:15 AM PST (12:15 PM EST).