Edited image of John Martin's Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Image via Wikipedia.
We're in a Golden Age of digitization. Now, more than ever, we're using the latest technology to unlock the secrets of the past, perhaps most notably those set down in scrolls. Digitizing fragile medieval parchments is one thing. But what about digitizing ancient papyrus damaged by the wrath of Vesuvius, history's most iconic volcanic eruption?
We've been working at it for centuries. Per the BBC:
When excavators and treasure hunters set about exploring the [Herculaneum] villa in the 18th Century, they mistook the scrolls for lumps of charcoal and burnt logs. Some were used as torches or thrown on to the fire... But once it was realised what they were - possibly because of the umbilicus, the stick at the centre of the scrolls - the challenge was to find a way to open them.
Let's step back. In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in pyroclastic volcanic junk and tragically catapulting their inhabitants into history. Herculaneum was not found again until 1739, but when it was, a library emerged among the ruins. Finding a complete library from ancient Rome was a massive and singular discovery, but there was a major problem: the text-laden papyrus scrolls within were unreadable in their current state.
As it unsurprisingly turns out, Mount Vesuvius did a number on these texts. For a long time, efforts to read the Herculaneum papyri ran afoul of the fragility and compactness of the papyri themselves. Unrolling often did a lot of damage to the scrolls, more than could be justified. And even if a cautious and meticulous researcher managed to unravel a section of papyrus, reading the thousands of year old text itself was almost as difficult.
In 1999, researchers at Brigham Young University quite literally shed new light on the papyri. Using infrared light, scientists were suddenly able to discern the text from the rest of the paper. No longer did it look like a “burnt newspaper,” as papyrology professor Dirk Obbink told the BBC, but now actual words were visible.
A little less than a decade later, the next step in the Herculaneum papyri saga was multispectral imaging, whereby sixteen images were taken of the scrolls, each at a different wavelength. This not only made more text visible on even the most troublesome of scrolls, but it also made it possible to detect distinct handwritings.
However, unraveling was still a problem so scientists kept searching for a mechanism by which to examine the scrolls while they remained closed.
A computer science professor from the University of Kentucky thought he had the answer. Working with two preserved Herculaneum scrolls, Brent Seales used micro-CT imaging techniques to attempt to “virtually unroll a scroll.” Micro-CT works at a higher resolution than regular CT scans, operating on the much-smaller micron scale instead of a millimeter scale. Experiments on similar objects seemed promising.
But the Herculaneum set of scrolls was unlike others they had tested. They were so compactly wound that not even a high-resolution scanner could separate the layers, which needed a voxel of empty space between to do so. “These scans show the internal structure of the roll, including fissures, fractures, and air gaps,” wrote Beales in a paper about his work. But, he says, “automated segmentation for separating layers within the scroll has been virtual impossible.”
Despite the micro-CT troubles, scientists kept on rolling forward with other forms of imaging. In 2011, Brigham Young announced they had digitally imaged 1,600 of the approximately 1,800 scrolls from Herculaneum, creating over 30,000 high-resolution images.
So far, the BBC reports that these technologies have uncovered a stack of writings from a student of Epicurus as well as part of a missing Epicurean text. But all of this is just the very long beginning. Now begins the work of stitching these digitized pieces together, analyzing the hell out of them, and bringing back to life a library almost snuffed out by a legendary natural disaster.