How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Particle Accelerators, 3D Modeling & Artificial Intelligence

Every­one knows that Mount Vesu­vius erupt­ed in 79 AD, entomb­ing the Roman town of Pom­peii in ash. Almost every­one knows that it also did the same to sev­er­al oth­er towns, includ­ing wealthy Her­cu­la­neum on the Bay of Naples. Count­less schol­ars have ded­i­cat­ed their lives to study­ing these unusu­al­ly well-pre­served first-cen­tu­ry ruins and the his­tor­i­cal trea­sures found with­in. We now under­stand a great deal about the lay­out, the struc­tures, the social life of Her­cu­la­neum, but some aspects remain unknow­able, such as the con­tents of the scrolls, charred beyond recog­ni­tion, that fill its libraries — or at least that remained unknow­able until now.

“In the 18th cen­tu­ry, work­men employed by King Charles III of Spain, then in charge of much of south­ern Italy, dis­cov­ered the remains of a mag­nif­i­cent vil­la, thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caeson­i­nus (known as Piso), a wealthy states­man and the father-in-law of Julius Cae­sar,” writes Smith­son­ian’s Jo Marchant. There, “in what was to become one of the most frus­trat­ing archae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies ever, the work­men also found approx­i­mate­ly 2,000 papyrus scrolls.” But since the heat and gas­es of Vesu­vius had turned them “black and hard like lumps of coal”  — and indeed, some of Charles III’s work­men mis­took them for coal and threw them away — attempts to open them “cre­at­ed a mess of frag­ile flakes that yield­ed only brief snip­pets of text.”

The time of Charles III bare­ly had suf­fi­cient know-how to avoid destroy­ing the scrolls of Her­cu­la­neum, let alone to read them. That task turns out to demand even the most cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy we have today, includ­ing cus­tom-made 3D mod­el­ing soft­ware, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, and the most advanced x‑ray facil­i­ties in exis­tence. Marchan­t’s arti­cle focus­es on an Amer­i­can com­put­er sci­en­tist named Brent Seales (Pro­fes­sor and Chair of Com­put­er Sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky), whose quest to read the Her­cu­la­neum scrolls has become a quest to devel­op a method to vir­tu­al­ly “unroll” them. This requires not just the com­put­ing pow­er and log­ic to deter­mine how these black­ened lumps (Seales calls two of them “Fat Bas­tard” and “Banana Boy”) might orig­i­nal­ly have opened up, but the most advanced par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tors in the world to scan them in the first place.

You can read more about Seales’ work with the Her­cu­la­neum scrolls, which after twen­ty years has shown real promise, at Men­tal Floss and Newsweek. Though quite expen­sive (demand for “beam time” on a par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor being what it is), huge­ly time-con­sum­ing, and occa­sion­al­ly, in Seales’ words, “excru­ci­at­ing­ly frus­trat­ing,” the inven­tion of a reli­able method for read­ing these and oth­er seem­ing­ly lost texts from antiq­ui­ty could make sub­stan­tial addi­tions to what we think of as the canon. (The texts revealed so far have had to do with the ideas of Epi­cu­rus, a primer on whose phi­los­o­phy we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured on Open Cul­ture.) But gain­ing the fullest pos­si­ble under­stand­ing of what our ances­tors knew in the first cen­tu­ry may first require a few more 21st-cen­tu­ry devel­op­ments in physics and com­put­er sci­ence yet.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hid­den Ancient Greek Med­ical Text Read for the First Time in a Thou­sand Years — with a Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tor

Watch the Destruc­tion of Pom­peii by Mount Vesu­vius, Re-Cre­at­ed with Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion (79 AD)

See the Expan­sive Ruins of Pom­peii Like You’ve Nev­er Seen Them Before: Through the Eyes of a Drone

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

Google Puts The Dead Sea Scrolls Online (in Super High Res­o­lu­tion)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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