2,000-Year-Old Scorched Scrolls of Herculaneum

Secrets in 2,000-Year-Old Scorched Scrolls of Herculaneum to be Revealed with New Tech

(Read the article on one page)

An enormous wealth of knowledge locked within hundreds of ancient papyrus scrolls scorched by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, may now be revealed thanks to new technology which may enable the texts to be read.

The new technique, published in the journal Nature Communications , involves a type of X-ray phase-contrast tomography, which enables letters to be highlighted based on their slightly raised height on the papyrus. So far, six scrolls have been analyzed with this method and the resulting text is currently undergoing translation.

“Both the Roman city of Pompeii and the nearby, wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum were wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing thousands of people and covering fine villas in ash and lava,” writes Live Science .

In the 1970s, workers uncovered a library in a villa thought to be the home of a Roman statesman, or even Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. The site, now known as the Villa of Papyri, was excavated by archaeologist Karl Weber between 1970 and 1975 by means of underground tunnels. It was found to contain nearly 2,000 ancient papyrus scrolls, the ‘Herculaneum papyri’.

Villa of the Papyri at the archeological site of Herculaneum

Villa of the Papyri at the archeological site of Herculaneum ( Wikipedia).

At the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, the precious library was packed in cases ready to be moved to safety when it was overtaken by pyroclastic flow; the eruption eventually deposited some 20–25 m of volcanic ash over the site, charring the scrolls but preserving them— one of the few surviving libraries of Antiquity.

According to British linguist and palaeographer David Diringer, more than 340 of the scrolls are almost complete, about 970 are partly decayed and partly decipherable, and more than 500 are completely charred.

Many of the scrolls were preserved enough to be completely or partially unroll, leading to hundreds being deciphered and published. It was found that the library was of a mainly philosophical character, possible collected by the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara. Followers of Epicurus studied the teachings of this moral and natural philosopher. This philosophy taught that man is mortal, that the cosmos is the result of accident, that there is no providential god, and that the criterion of a good life is pleasure and temperance.

Herculaneum Papyrus 1428: Philodemus, On Piety

Herculaneum Papyrus 1428: Philodemus, On Piety ( Friends of the Herculaneum Society )

Despite the success in unravelling and reading many of the scrolls, there still remained hundreds of scrolls in which the internal structure was too compact and fragile to unroll. Furthermore, the fact that they had been written with carbon-based ink, which have a much lower contrast to the blackened papyrus than inks with metallic bases, made them impossible to read.

A team of scientists from the National Research Council in Naples, Italy, therefore developed a new technique called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. “Because the letters on the papyrus are slightly raised in height, the waves of X-rays that hit the letters would be reflected back with a slightly shifted phase, compared with the waves that hit the underlying material,” reports Live Science. “By measuring this phase difference, the team was able to reproduce the shape of the letters inside the rolled scrolls.”

So far, the team has analyzed six scrolls that are currently now housed at the French Institute in Paris. While the decipherment of the words in the innermost layer is still proving to be extremely challenging, the research team has been able to decipher at least some of the Greek letters and words written inside the charred scrolls.

Jennifer Sheridan Moss, a papyrologist at Wayne State University in Detroit and the president of the American Society of Papyrologists, said the new technique holds promise for deciphering other burnt papyri as well.

"Most people now believe there is a whole other library under there in that Villa of the Papyri," Moss told Live Science. In Roman times, most libraries held Greek collections and Latin collections in separate areas. Since all the scrolls found to date are written in Greek, it has been suggested that there may be another entire collection written in Latin. Archaeologists are continuing to excavate the villa, though at times hindered by noxious gases released from the ground.

"We could easily find more things that are in bad shape like this, and then the technology could be applied to them," Moss said.

Featured image: Papyrus scroll found in a Herculaneum villa. Credit: E. Brun

By April Holloway

Comments

rbflooringinstall's picture

Awesome! Who knows what kind of historical records that ancient library might possess. It'll be fascinating to see what is there.

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Was the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton in Fact the Father of Modern Monotheism?
This passage may read like a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible; but, this is a quote from the Hymn of Aten, a work by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV better known as Akhenaton. This so-called heretic king was the only known Pharaoh in Egyptian history who believed in a monotheistic doctrine when most of the ancient world adhered to polytheism.

Ancient Technology

Left side view of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings, a television special, took an hour long look at the great city, its inhabitants, and the excavation of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, (also known as the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.) The program revealed evidence of advanced engineering built into a tunnel system, and placed directly underneath the Pyramid.

Ancient Places

Entrance from above to the Loltun Cave complex
On the 3rd of January 1931, an article appeared in the Modesto News-Herald entitled ‘Mystery of the Loltun Cave hermit’. The article recounted the encounter between a man by the name of Robert Stacy-Judd and an old Mayan hermit, when the former got lost whilst exploring the Loltun Cave with several native guides.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article