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The enigma of Herculaneum and the promise of modern technology

When the ancient resort city of Herculaneum disappeared under more than 65 feet of hot ash and stone in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, a large library of important philosophical texts was buried with it. Like the city and everything in it, the library’s large collection of papyrus scrolls was burned to a crisp, and the efforts to recover, conserve, and read these texts has a long, intriguing history. This story is still unfolding as modern technologies used in space exploration and medicine are brought to bear on the challenge of “unrolling” and reading the texts.

Thanks to ruins that poked out of accumulated heaps of volcanic ash and to a graphic account of Vesuvius’ eruption in the letters of Pliny the Younger (Ep. 6.16 and 6.20), Pompeii’s location and its fate were always known. In contrast, Herculaneum, a sister resort located to the west of the mountain between Pompeii and Naples, disappeared entirely under waves of searing pumice and ash. It was accidentally found only in 1709 by workmen digging a well in modern Resina. Rather than water, they found honorific plaques that had been put up in Herculaneum’s theater. Modern archaeology had not yet been developed, and the depth of ash challenged the eighteenth century excavators, who were more interested in recovering art works than conserving the site, but much is known about it now.

Outside the city itself is a seaside villa built in the first century BCE, probably by L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. It is a three-story edifice, roughly 65,000 square feet, featuring courtyards, pools and every ancient amenity. It was discovered by well-diggers in 1750 and is still not fully excavated. Karl Weber took charge of it on behalf of the ruling Bourbons, and from 1750 to 1761 he extracted about 90 marble and bronze statues, along with mosaics, vases and other priceless antiquities, through a network of deep tunnels. Overlooked were black lumps of organic matter, like charcoal, found scattered around and also in wooden storage boxes.

In 1752, Camillo Paderni, a draftsman who was on the site to sketch vases and wall paintings realized that the lumps had writing on them. They were, in fact, scrolls of papyrus, books from what is still the only ancient library discovered in situ. But the scrolls were all but impossible to read. Like archaeology, papyrology only began in earnest a century later when large numbers of papyri were discovered in the Fayum in Egypt where the climate was better suited to their preservation. In Italy, which is much damper, papyrus rots very quickly. At Herculaneum, however, the hot ash carbonized all of the organic matter like wood, textiles and the scrolls in the library of what is now called the Villa dei Papiri.

It is difficult to read papyri under the best conditions, and the papyri from Herculaneum are several orders more difficult to decipher than the Egyptian ones. Black ink does not stand out from its black carbonized background, and the scrolls themselves are so brittle that they fall into small pieces when any attempt is made to unroll them. Many were ruined and lost forever, but about 1,800 pieces of various sizes and a number of intact rolls were rescued and brought to the Royal Museum at Portici. There, various methods of unrolling were tried in vain, and more scrolls were destroyed in the process, until in 1753 Antonio Piaggio arrived from the Vatican library and invented a machine that could very slowly and painstakingly separate the fused sheets of papyri.

Over the years, he managed to unwrap about 50 scrolls, which scholars have recognized to be primarily the works of the Epicurean philosopher and epigrammatist Philodemus of Gadara (c. 110 – c. 35 BCE). These include many of Philodemus’ own works such as On Music, On Piety, On Poems, parts of Epicurus’ On Nature, and works by his Stoic rival Chrysippus. Multiple and annotated copies suggest that this was the working library of a school or perhaps of Philodemus himself. It was once fashionable to minimize the value of these texts with a dismissive wish that new volumes of Sophocles or Sappho had been found instead, but Philodemus’ habit of quoting at length the arguments of rival philosophers, including Aristotle, has yielded valuable information about ancient and especially Hellenistic philosophy and literary theory, where once was a yawning gap in our knowledge.

Work goes forward on reading the scrolls, and modern technologies have already made a difference. Multispectral imaging, developed by NASA to identify mineral deposits on heavenly bodies, has been used successfully to read black ink on a black background by exploiting the fact that minerals present in the ink reflect light differently than those on the page itself. This technique, enhanced with the use of binocular microscopes, has made possible new readings and new editions of previously opened rolls. The challenge now is to open the fused scrolls virtually. The most successful effort to date used X-ray Phase Contrast Tomography (XPCT) to discriminate between the ink which sits on the surface of a page from the page itself.

Image Credit: “The Heracles Papyrus (Oxford, Sackler Library, Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331) a fragment of 3rd century Greek manuscript of a poem about the Labors of Heracles.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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