January 23, 2015

Crumbling scrolls: uncovering and recovering an ancient library


shutterstock_64457386In around 79 AD, Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town, was destroyed and buried under ash by an eruption from Mount Vesuvius. When it was finally excavated in the 18th Century, a huge collection of precious, ancient scrolls were discovered, amounting to around 2,000 texts. This collection has become known as the Villa of the Papyri, and is believed to be the only such library still in existence today.

The only problem is that whenever attempts have been made to read the scrolls throughout history, the attempts have destroyed the scrolls. It’s a fascinating story of the effort to access knowledge so fragile it literally crumbles under the fingers.

An article in The Economist tells that story, and reports the news that a solution may be near. The library mostly contains treatises on the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and at least 44 of the scrolls are the work of Philodemus, a fellow Epicurean philosopher. But what’s particularly thrilling is that Epicurus “wrote a 37-volume treatise on empiricism called On Nature” which is “perhaps the most comprehensive basis in classical times for the modern notion of learning through experimentation.” It’s very possible that fragments from this are among the scrolls.

When the scrolls were first discovered in Italy, a letter to the Royal Society in London suggested that it would be impossible for them to ever be read:

There were found many volumes of papyrus but turned to a sort of charcoal, and so brittle, that being touched, it fell to ashes. Yet by His Majesty’s orders he made many trials to open them, but all to no purpose; excepting some scraps containing some words.

The subsequent history of the library is tragic, especially considering the subject matter of the texts. When it comes to fragile texts, perhaps “learning through experimentation” is not the best approach. The library’s modern history reads like a What Not To Do To Ancient Manuscripts document, chiefly:

Don’t bin them:

Many were dumped before anyone realised what they were. Perhaps 1,100 were saved, but early attempts to read these were equally destructive.

Don’t use sharp implements in your attempts to read them:

Paderni simply took a knife to them, and though his contemporary Antonio Piaggio, a conservator from the Vatican, managed to build a rack that suspended them from silken threads, letting them unroll under their own weight for months on end, they still tended to break into pieces.

You might want to go easy on experimental techniques:

Attempts continued into the 20th century, when Norwegian scientists tried applying a gelatine-based adhesive that shrank when it dried, peeling the scrolls’ layers apart in the process. This still, though, left many scrolls in fragments.

Considering the above, it’s a miracle that so much of the library remains. And now Dr Vito Mocella of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples believes he has discovered a way to read the scrolls without unrolling them—by using X-Rays.

Mocella’s X-Rays are highly specialised. A normal X-Ray works by distinguishing between density but because antique inks were made from soot, which is basically pure carbon and the very charred papyri is now also pure carbon, it would not reveal any words or text. Mocella’s ESRF X-Rays identify layering, and because the ink sits on top of the papyrus, it can be picked up by X-Ray and, finally, read.

Or to be more exact:

[Dr Mocella] and his colleagues rotated each scroll in the ESRF’s beam and stitched the resulting interference patterns together using a computer. They ended up with three-dimensional scans of the scrolls, inside which the individual letters can be read.

Such a solution would have been unthinkable to those who first discovered the Villa of the Papyri, but it was also unthinkable only a week ago. Dirk Obbink, a professor of classics at Oxford University, told The Economist, “I’m planning on living long enough to read one of those with the new technology. Last week, I wasn’t.”

Sometimes it takes experimenting with the newest, most cutting edge of technology to allow us to access the oldest and original texts. And of that Epicurus would have approved.



Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.