Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© ErN 131 Jeff Matthews entry August 2009  upd: Feb. 2014, Jan '15, Mar '16, Nov '16   

If only the Pope had sent some alien paleontologist, maybe a gigantic version of the mantis shrimp (photo, below), whose eyes can see everything from ultraviolet through infrared. But, no, he sent a monk...

n talking about the so-called Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, we have to distinguish between the building (the villa) and what was found inside the villa, the papyrus scrolls. The villa is said to be the largest Roman villa ever found. (Only a small portion has been excavated, and as recently as the 1990s two previously undiscovered floors, built as terraces overlooking the sea, were discovered.)
What's the problem? I can read it!

The villa covered some 30,000 sq feet (2,790 sq meters) and probably belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso. That is certainly significant, and many of the splendid bronze and marble statues and other artifacts found on the premises have been moved to the Naples Archaeological Museum. (The villa has also been called the Villa dei Pisoni after the presumed Roman owner. (The villa has been reconstructed on the grounds of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California.)    
Of more interest to scholars, however, is the fact the villa contained a library, a collection of about 1800 texts written on papyrus scrolls. It is the only ancient Roman book collection ever found intact. “Intact,” is relative, however; the scrolls were badly scorched where they lay—turned into what look like sticks of charcoal—during the great eruption that destroyed Herculaneum and nearby Pompeii in 79 AD. There is some Latin material in the scroll library, but most of the material is in Greek and consists primarily of works on Epicurean philosophy by Philodemus of Gadara (c. 110 BC - c.35 BC). Some material is by Epicurus, himself—for example, his 37-volume life's work, On Nature. There are also other Epicurean philosophers present in the collection. Although some of Philodemus’ poetry had been known, his prose was unknown until the discoveries at Herculaneum. The library—a room, 3.2 x 3.2 meters (10 x 10 feet)—contained the shelves that held the scrolls. Some scrolls were also found elsewhere on the premises. The assumption is that since the entire collection centers on works of Epicurean philosophy—mainly Philodemus— and since he was known to have Lucius Calpurnius Piso as a patron, the collection must have been Philodemus' own private library set in his patron's villa. Thus, we presume Piso to have been the owner of the villa. (The alternative is that Philodemus owned the villa, but that would have made him one very rich philosopher, indeed. Not likely.)

Herculaneum and the villa were first uncovered during the first wave of archaeological enthusiasm during the early Bourbon rule of Naples. The first systematic digger was Karl Weber in the 1750s. Charles III, upon the advice of his capable minister, Bernardo Tanucci, called a commission into existence to study the texts. Attempts to simply unroll the scrolls were not a complete disaster, but some material was destroyed and some turned into jigsaw fragments of text that have yet to be reassembled. Yet, progress was made using an “unrolling device” invented by the Piarist monk, Antonio Piaggio (1713-1797), who was sent from Rome expressly for the purpose of helping to decipher the scrolls. Reports on the contents of the library were published as early as the 1790s, and a 2-volume facsimile edition was published in Oxford in 1825. Photographic imaging started to be used in the early 1900s and the results were published in 1914. In the 1980s they also used an ingenious method devised by Knut Kleve of the University of Oslo of chemically treating the papyri to make them legible.

Recent efforts at deciphering the rolls have used the new technology of multi-spectral imaging. It is a technique developed in the early 1990s for imaging the earth from orbit, but other applications include taking pictures of the illegible Herculaneum papyri with different filters in the infrared and ultraviolet range; thus—since different substances (ink and papyrus, for example) reflect light differently—what appears to normal human vision (but not to that of the mantis shrimp!) to be black ink on black charcoal can be teased apart at the proper frequencies of light into visible, legible ink on papyrus. The imaging and digitizing of the results were done on the premises of the National Library in Naples from 2000 to 2002 by a team from the Center for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) of Brigham Young University in Utah.

[see updates, below]

The Office for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri at the National Library is named for Marcello Gigante (1923-2001), the scholar who founded the International Center for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri and, as well, started a department for papyrology at the University of Naples. The National Library currently has an archive stored on 364 CDs containing the contents of 965 papyri broken down into 30,000 separate images. They may be consulted by appointment.

It may be that further excavation of the villa will bring to light additional volumes of other Greek and Roman writers, plus more bronze and marble treasures. It may also be that that will never come to pass because most of ancient Herculaneum is beneath modern Ercolano. There are plans—or least plans for making plans. These are called “feasibility studies."  

There are various organizations dedicated to the study of the papyri. Among them:

—National Library of Naples (which has owned the papyri since 1910);
— “Marcello Gigante” International Center for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri;
—Center for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) of Brigham Young University in Utah;
—Philodemus Project of the University of California at Los Angeles;
— Computer Science department of the University of Kentucky;
—Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems, Naples.

[see update from Jan 2015, below]

update: Feb. 2014 - A large sloped and stepped retaining wall has now been completed after five months of work and one-hundred thousand euros. The purpose of the wall is to shore up the cliff face that is directly adjacent to the Villa of the Scrolls. The wall extends for some two-hundred meters and is 10 meters high in places. "Cliff face" is not exact, at least not in the sense of the cliff being of solid rock laid down geological ages ago; it is really more impacted volcanic material that has been dug into over the last 250 years in order to excavate the ancient city of Herculaneum. It is brittle, exposed to the elements and can crumble. The wall, itself, employs the ingenious device of what is called "geomat" construction. A geomat is a large three-dimensional honeycomb-like affair, the separate polymer elements of which have been thermally jointed together, making the whole mat water permeable. Geomats can be "woven" into almost any configuration and are used for fixing soil elements, grass and plant roots on irregular or steep surfaces and even on banks of rivers to fight erosion. The plant growth comes up though the mat and makes the wall/mat even stronger as it grows. The mat can be seeded and controlled and is ideal for preventing erosion and collapse. The precious scrolls originally found in the villa, as noted in the main article (above), have, of course, long-since been removed to the National Museum, but with the villa now secure, work can continue on finding new treasures.   (photo: il Mattino)

revised update: Jan.  2015 - More on the papyri scrolls (first item, above).

Various sources report on newer non-invasive attempts to decipher the contents of the 450 scrolls that have remained unapproachable. As noted  above, past attempts to physically open the fragile documents damaged or destroyed some of them, Also, later attempts in 2009 with X-ray-computed tomography could not adequately distinguish the ink from the surface of the papyri. Now a team led by Vito Mocella, of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, has been able to "virtually unroll" them; that is, read letters inside the scrolls without physically unrolling them, by using a laser-like beam of X-rays from the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France. The trick to unlocking the true potential of such techniques has been to distinguish between carbonized papyrus fibers and the ancient ink, also carbon. So far, researchers are still at the stage of having singled out individual letters and are working on various ways to refine the technique. From the authors' abstract in the journal Nature Commications, published 20 January 2015,

Here for the first time, we show that X-ray phase-contrast tomography can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them. This attempt opens up new opportunities to read many Herculaneum papyri, which are  still rolled up, thus enhancing our knowledge of ancient Greek literature and philosophy.
I wrote an email to Prof. Brent Seales, head of the computer science department at the University of Kentucky and involved with the 2009 imaging efforts with X-ray-computed tomography. My basic question was this: if earlier efforts were not effective, what was on all those CDs at the national library? He kindly answered:
The spectral imaging of the fragments that had already been opened  [emphasis added] was an amazing step forward and produced a large collection of very readable images. [This in reference to the content of the CDs.] It was a great success, and I'm glad to say that Roger MacFarlane from Brigham Young University was/is involved in that effort and is now part of my project. Those items were from scrolls that had already been opened. Attempts at imaging scrolls that were not already opened were not effective.  Also there is no effective way to image the hidden layers on the fragments that have been opened.  Many of them are made up of more than one layer, and these are stuck together. The hidden layers are not accessible. The non-invasive (x-ray) imaging methods are only interesting for material that isn't already taken apart...

 ...the Italian team (and the recently published Nature Communications paper) does not focus on "virtual unrolling".  They show that the imaging method (phase contrast tomography) produces contrast at the ink in Herculaneum material.  They show this by having found example letter forms within the volumetric data that was acquired via phase contrast tomography.  This is the contribution of the paper.  Any "virtual unrolling" requires further processing - identifying exact surfaces, correctly modeling their shape, and producing a clear texture from the scan onto those surfaces.  It is this "unrolling" problem that is now in focus given that we can produce data that we know will show writing if it is correctly "virtually unrolled"...We have in fact been working with the scan team in the effort;  the spring 2015 scans will be a continuation of that.  Note that Delattre, my collaborator and co-author since 2005, is also a co-author of the Nature Communications paper.  They will continue to optimize the parameters of the scanning technique to produce better resolution and contrast;  we hope to advance the software for "virtual unrolling."
In an interview with the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Ledger, Prof. Seales said that the University of Kentucky team plans to join the Italian researchers this spring in an effort to refine the imaging system and produce even clearer digital pictures of writing from the scrolls.Their three-year goal is to produce a full scan of at least one complete scroll that could be digitally "unrolled" on a computer screen for scholars to study.

update Mar 2016
Metal Detected in Ink on Herculaneum Papyrus Fragments

Archaeology, a publication of the Archaological Institute of America reports (March 22, 2016) from Grenoble, France that scientists "have detected metal, including a large amount of lead, in the ink on two papyrus fragments recovered from Herculaneum... It had been thought that Greeks and Romans used the carbon-based ink described by Pliny the Elder... [c. AD 23 – August 25, AD 79] until metallic inks came into use in the fourth century A.D." The use of lead-based inks in the Herculaneum papyri, created much earlier, is an important discovery... [that] "deeply modifies our knowledge of Greek and Latin writing in Antiquity and opens new research perspectives...". The article from Archaeology is off-site at this link. In turn, it links to its own source, a press release from the research team.

add, Oct 2018

 Continuing Research on "Virtual Unravelling"

Scientists ‘virtually unravel’ burnt 16th century scroll

Researchers at Cardiff University remind us that there are "brand new techniques" in "virtual unravelling" and more are constantly being refined by researchers around the world. Their own technique involves using x-ray tomography, usually reserved for use in the medical field, to create thousands of thin cross sections of the scroll. In each cross-section, ink from the scroll is made visible as bright blobs. Using highly advanced computer algorithms ("highly advanced" is a bizarre understatement!), the team can then piece together each of the cross sections and their associated ink marks to form a flat representation of the scroll. They report that they have now "unravelled" a scroll from the Diss Heywood Bressingham Manor scroll (pictured). It is a record of the Curia Generalis, the General Court, dealing with land transactions, testamentary business, and the names of individuals. It was an extremely challenging sample to work with because "it contained four sheets of parchment and many touching layers, which can result in text being assigned to the wrong sheets."

The scroll in question was 770 mm wide (about 10 1/2 inches) and was especially complex in that it was not a single scrolled page (the way many biblical or ancient Greek or Roman documents are, but four single sheets rolled into one scroll. The permutations are staggering and to make this as complicated as possible suppose you have a document that contains (you don't know because you can't open it) ancient Boustrophedon writing (meaning, "as the ox plows"); one line moves, say, from left to write but then, instead of returning to the left side to start the next line, simply drops down at the right side, turns around, moos or bellows unhappily, and keeps going, but with the letters reversed (that is, backwards!). Don't forget that some letters in the all-cap style of the day were symmetrical: I, O, A, M, H, T, U, V, W, X, so that neither you nor the ox knows if you're coming or going. Did I say this was complicated?

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