Friday, December 20, 2013

Herculaneum in the news

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Unlocking the scrolls of Herculaneum (Robin Banerji, BBC)

A long and very good article on the scrolls recovered from Herculaneum. Much of it is summary rather than anything new, but it is very thorough. It discusses early, largely futile efforts to unroll and read the carbonized scrolls in the 1980s, technological advances that made the ink visible, more recent advances that have made the lettering much clearer, and promising very recent advances that can map the contours of unrolled carbonized "logs" of scroll and that someday may permit non-invasive and non-destructive scanning of the text. Regarding the latter:
Not all of the villa's scrolls have been unrolled though - and because of the damage they suffer in the unwinding process that work has now been halted. Might it be possible to read them by unrolling them not physically, but virtually?

In 2009 two unopened scrolls from Herculaneum belonging to the Institut de France in Paris were placed in a Computerised Tomography (CT) scanner, normally used for medical imaging. The machine, which can distinguish different kinds of bodily tissue and produce a detailed image of a human's internal organs could potentially be used to reveal the internal surfaces of the scroll.

The task proved immensely difficult, because the scrolls were so tightly wound, and creased.

"We were able to unwrap a number of sections from the scroll and flatten them into 2D images - and on those sections you can clearly see the structure of the papyrus: fibers, sand," says Dr Brent Seales, a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, who led the effort.

But the machine could not distinguish "the chemistry of the ink from the chemistry of the paper," he says. It is unfortunate that ancient ink contains no metal.

Seales is continuing to analyse the data produced by the 2009 scan. He has also begun testing a new way of reading the scrolls, using a beam from a particle accelerator.
There is also good reason to believe that some of the library, perhaps most of it, remains buried and waiting to be recovered.

Some lost works of the minor philosopher Philodemus have been recovered so far (it may have been his "working library") as well as part of a lost composition by the philosopher Epicurus, but there may be a whole Rule of Four-magnitude library of ancient Classical works still buried there.

I suppose it's too much to hope for some Enochic books in Greek as well, but it perhaps seems just possible that a Septuagint manuscript or two might be included.

Past posts on Herculaneum and its scrolls and other relevant things are collected here.