Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 131, entry Aug 2009, various updates through Nov 2022, Oct 2023  

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 Jakob Weber* in the 1750s.

*Weber (1712-1764) was a Swiss architect and engineer who insisted on drawing diagrams of everything and noting where each artifact was located. His work is historically monumental. In effect, he discovered the first ancient library ever found, that of the Herculaneum papyri. It was largely through his efforts that the rest of Europe became aware of the physical remnants of classical antiquity in southern Italy.
Charles III, upon the advice of his capable minister, Bernardo Tanucci, formed a commission 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 to help 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.

Further excavation of the villa may bring to light additional volumes of other Greek and Roman writers, plus more bronze and marble treasures, but that may never come to pass because most of ancient Herculaneum is beneath modern Ercolano. There are plans —or least plans for making plans called “feasibility studies" working on all this.

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 -

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 (which is 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 Commucations, 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 unraveling" 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, 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 "unraveled" 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?

add Sept. 11, 2019

This is the abstract of an article at, 06 Sep 2019, vol. 5, no. 9 and widely cited in other journals. It is not directly related to the Herculaneum papyri, but rather to the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically the so-called Temple Scroll (image shown). It is thus of general interest to the entire field of working with ancient scrolls. I have underlined some sections for emphasis.

Abstract: The miraculously preserved 2000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient texts of invaluable historical significance, were discovered in the mid-20th century in the caves of the Judean desert. The texts were mainly written on parchment and exhibit vast diversity in their states of preservation. One particular scroll, the 8-m-long Temple Scroll is especially notable because of its exceptional thinness and bright ivory color. The parchment has a layered structure, consisting of a collagenous base material and an atypical inorganic overlayer. We analyzed the chemistry of  the inorganic layer using x-ray and Raman spectroscopies and discovered a variety of evaporitic sulfate salts. This points toward a unique ancient production technology in which the parchment was modified through the addition of the inorganic layer as a writing surface. Furthermore, understanding the properties of these minerals is particularly critical for the development of suitable conservation methods for the preservation of these invaluable historical documents.

added Oct 9, 2019

                            Work Continues on the Scrolls

As indicated above in the main article and updates, the scrolls are badly charred and mostly unreadable. “It’s a black cat at midnight situation,” says Greg Bearman, a physicist who has studied ancient scrolls. That is an understatement. If you think getting toothpaste back in a tube is hard, try opening your pile of charcoal to page 52.

Recent and current work has been in the news on two fronts. First, at a mobile laboratory in the Italian national library in Naples, where many scrolls from Herculaneum are kept. The backs of the scrolls posed a problem. Many scrolls were damaged in attempts to unroll them. When scholars did try to unroll a scroll of scorched papyrus, they often glued it flat onto paperboard to prevent it from crumbling into flakes. If there was writing on the back, this meant that those words were lost, except for a few pages of notes jotted down by draftsmen beforehand. The research team is led by Graziano Ranocchia, a classicist at the National Research Council in Rome. This infrared imaging (technically called "short-wave infrared hyperspectral imaging") is “very good for penetrating layers and reading inside a solid object,” he said. This work is in addition to the methods mentioned above of using x-ray scanning to see inside some scrolls that remain tightly rolled. (I add, this is why they invented books!)

Second, Brent Seales (mentioned above) continues in his efforts to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls and other similar documents by using Diamond, the UK’s national synchrotron* science facility in Oxfordshire to examine a collection of ancient artifacts owned by the Institut de France. Seales thinks the scans from Diamond represent his teams best chance to reveal the contents of these 2,000-year-old papyri. He says “Diamond Light Source is an absolutely crucial element in our long-term plan to reveal the writing from damaged materials, as it offers unparalleled brightness and control for the images we can create, plus access to a brain trust of scientists who understand our challenges and are eager to help us succeed. This promises to be a key moment in our quest for a reliable pathway to reading the invisible library.”

  • *(A technical note: Minus the good stuff and for our charred purposes only, a synchrotron is a particle accelerator and powerful light source with many uses in science. With the scrolls, the light is so strong that it "sees through" them. You note a similar effect by holding a flashlight behind your pinky. You see a glow through your finger because your finger is not truly solid. Nothing is. Don't worry about it. It has to do with Max Plank, who once said, "Put your pinky in that synchrotron. HEY, WAIT! Wow, I didn't think you'd really do it. What? Yeah, it's pretty neat. Are you ok?")

These techniques have spectacular potential. The scrolls are time-capsules. If you can open these particular ones, you can apply the technology around the world to any piece of hidden writing damaged in various cultural environments. You can turn prehistory into history.                 

update: March 16, 2023

                        OK, Artificial Intelligence, Show Us What You've Got!

Former GitHub CEO Nat Friedman is helping fund $250,000 in prizes aimed at seeing if someone can use machine learning and computer vision to make sense of these scrolls. The eruption obscured the text in the scrolls, but also preserved them such that modern technology might be able to uncover the writing. Recently, X-rays have let the 600 scrolls be virtually unrolled, but they are still unreadable. Prize money will go to individuals or teams who can detect the ink. Friedman said they have proven that machine learning can help recognize ink in papyrus fragments, convincing him the tech is up to the challenge. "We live in an age of miracles," he said. "We're using high energy physics and AI to peer into the past."                                                      

     Thanks to Jeff Miller and Suzy Toll for calling my attention to this update from Oct. 14, 2023 items.


Researchers have extracted the first word from one of the texts, using artificial intelligence to peer deep inside the delicate, charred remains. The discovery was announced on Thursday by Prof Brent Searles, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, and others who launched the Vesuvius challenge in March to accelerate the reading of the texts. Backed by Silicon Valley investors, the challenge offers cash prizes to researchers who extract legible words from the carbonized scrolls. “This is the first recovered text from one of these rolled-up, intact scrolls,” said Stephen Parsons, a staff researcher on the digital restoration initiative at the university. Researchers have since uncovered more letters from the ancient  scroll.     
                                                                                                                photo: U. of Kentucky                                                                                                                                                        

==================End of section on the scrolls/papyri====================

ecoding the Past -or
                                         IF U CN RD THS

I remember a sign I saw in a bus on my way to school years ago that said IF U CN RD THIS ... I forget the rest, but the gist was "If you can read this, you can make a lot of money as a stenographer." (It must have been a good system because I remembered it, though I still haven't made any money. (There's a rhetorical term for that. I don't remember that either... cognitive something or other. Anyway, it was an ad for a system of shorthand. I never learned any of that stuff and all I knew about shorthand was that I had heard of Pitman
(second one in image). It turns out that being able to write down what people say as fast as they say it is a very useful tool, and has been so since the beginning of writing, perhaps less so now that civilization has gone over to smiley icons to express one's innermost thoughts and feelings. I just saw one that means, "Don't pronounce the 'ph' in 'phthisic'".

I think of the work being done on decoding the past in the Herculaneum papyri. This entire page directly above explains some of it. It's excruciatingly complex. And what happens if they get something they can't read, something written not in a secret code (though it might as well be)? It might simply be shorthand, defined as "abbreviated symbols and signs that increase speed and brevity of writing." (I have friends who are always writing OMG! and btw and w/. It doesn't have to be a charred scroll. If it's on clean white paper, you're lost if they use symbols, letters, abbreviations, curved lines and dots you don't understand. Many forms of shorthand exist. Many journalists use it at press conferences; most computers have autocomplete functions that turn out wonderful puns and mistakes. A dear woman I know just wrote me, "I also belong to the Rosary Club." I know she is a devout Roman Catholic, so I'm not sure. Shorthand is essential for secretarial work, for the police, for many professions, and it has been around a long time and in many cultures. The earliest shorthand system is from the Parthenon in Ancient Greece, where they found an inscribed marble slab, showing a system based on vowels, with certain marks for
consonants. The oldest datable reference is a contract from the Middle Egypt, stating that Oxyrhynchos gives the
"semeiographer" Apollonios (a slave) two years to be taught shorthand writing, in this case word stem signs and word ending signs. In Ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Tiro (103–4 BC), a slave and later a freedman of Cicero, developed the Tironian notes so that he could write down Cicero's speeches. Plutarch says that Cicero employed several expert rapid writers. The Tironian notes were abbreviations for Latin word stems and word endings. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Tironian notes were no longer used to transcribe speeches, though they were still known and taught. When many monastery libraries were secularized in the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, long-forgotten manuscripts of Tironian notes were rediscovered and could be read.

  This went on around the world wherever there was a bureaucracy. In imperial China, clerks used an abbreviated, highly cursive form of Chinese characters to record court proceedings and criminal confessions. A great variety of systems developed in different European countries from the 1700s to the 1900s specific to the language of the country: Pitman, Gregg, and others in English; Gabelsberger and Roller in Germany. Heinrich Roller's tombstone in Berlin (image, right) even shows a sample of his shorthand. They thought so much of this educator and scholar that they even marked his tomb with a sample of his work. It says "In gratitude and honor to our teacher from his disciples."
  It's worth noting that over the ages "real scholars" always valued real language. They wouldn't lower themselves to "tricks" of orthography; that's something you had slaves do. So decoding the past depends on being able to read shorthand that has not yet been translated and developing a data base of ancient shorthand. That is a tall order. There is at least one Italian shorthand in common use today and I have asked Selene Salvi, my source for all things Italian, if she ever studied it, 

                                BT SO FR SH HS NT ANSRD

Ok, there she is. She says, "I never studied shorthand, but I've seen
        samples of it in official documents from the 1600s. What a madhouse!

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