The scrolls represent the only intact library known from the classical world, an unprecedented cache of ancient knowledge. Most classical texts we know today were copied, and were therefore filtered and distorted, by scribes over centuries, but these works came straight from the hands of the Greek and Roman scholars themselves. Yet the tremendous volcanic heat and gases spewed by Vesuvius carbonized the scrolls, turning them black and hard like lumps of coal. Over the years, various attempts to open some of them created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text. Hundreds of the papyri were therefore left unopened, with no realistic prospect that their contents would ever be revealed. And it probably would have remained that way except for an American computer scientist named Brent Seales, director of the Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky.PaleoJudaica has been following the work of Dr. Seales on the Herculaneum papyri and other ancient manuscripts for years. For past posts, start here and just follow those links.
This article is the most comprehensive one I can remember on the topic. And ... there's progress.
He’d brought a speck of charred papyrus from one of the Herculaneum scrolls he studied a decade earlier. The ink on it, he had found, contained a trace of lead. In Grenoble, direct X-ray imaging of the scrolls had not been enough to detect the ink. But when you fire hugely powerful X-rays through lead, the metal emits electromagnetic radiation, or “fluoresces,” at a characteristic frequency. Seales hoped to pick up that signal with a detector placed beside the fragment, which was specially calibrated to capture photons at lead’s characteristic frequency.The recovery of that one letter has the prospect of opening the floodgates for the decipherment of the Herculaneum scrolls, and of any number of other ancient manuscripts.
It was a long shot. The minuscule fluorescence of the letter would be swamped by radiation from the protective lead lining the room—like looking for a flickering candle from miles away on a rainy night, Seales said, as we stood in the crowded hutch. But after several days of intense work—optimizing the angle of the detector, shielding the main X-ray beam with tungsten “flight tubes”—the team finally got what it was looking for: a grainy, but clearly recognizable, “c.”
“We’ve proven it,” Seales said in triumph as he displayed the legible image to the Oxford audience in March. It is, Seales hopes, the last piece of the puzzle he needs to read the ink inside a Herculaneum scroll.
The results have scholars excitedly re-evaluating what they might now be able to achieve. “I think it’s actually very close to being cracked,” says [Dirk] Obbink, the Oxford papyrologist. He estimates that at least 500 Herculaneum scrolls haven’t been opened. Moreover, excavations at Herculaneum in the 1990s revealed two unexplored layers of the villa, which some scholars believe may contain hundreds or even thousands more scrolls.
Many scholars are convinced that Piso’s great library must have contained a range of literature far wider than what has been documented so far. Obbink says he wouldn’t be surprised to find more Latin literature, or a once-unimaginable treasure of lost poems by Sappho, the revered seventh-century B.C. poet known today only through the briefest of fragments.
That's enough excerpting. The article is long. You should read it all.
Bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.
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