Skip to comments.UK to 'unroll' papyrus scrolls buried by Vesuvius [Kentucky prof has non-invasive scanning technique
Posted on 05/24/2009 5:28:13 AM PDT by Mike Fieschko
On Aug. 24, 79 A.D., Italy's Mount Vesuvius exploded, burying the Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii under tons of super-heated ash, rock and debris in one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in history.
Thousands died. But somehow, hundreds of papyrus scrolls survived -- sort of -- in a villa at Herculaneum thought to have been owned at one time by Julius Caesar's father-in-law.
The scrolls contained ancient philosophical and learned writings. But they were so badly damaged -- literally turned to carbon by the volcanic heat -- that they crumbled when scholars first tried to open them centuries later.
The remaining scrolls, stored away in Italy and France, haven't been read -- or even unrolled -- since 79 AD.
Now, a computer scientist from the University of Kentucky hopes that modern digital technology will allow him to peer inside two of the fragile scrolls -- without physically opening them -- and unlock secrets they have held for almost 2,000 years.
Brent Seales, the Gill professor of engineering in UK's computer science department, will use an X-Ray CT scanning system to collect interior images of the scrolls' rolled-up pages. Then, he and his colleagues hope to digitally "unroll" the scrolls on a computer screen so scholars can read them.
"It will be a challenge because today these things look more like charcoal briquets [sic] than scrolls," Seales said last week. "But we're using a non-invasive scanning system, based on medical technology, that lets you slice through an object and develop a three-dimensional data set without having to open it, just as you would do a CT scan on a human body."
The two scrolls that Seales and his team will work on are stored at the French National Academy in Paris. The UK group will spend July working there.
Their system was developed at UK through the EDUCE project, or Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration, which Seales launched through a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Experts say that if the UK system works as well as hoped, it could provide a safe new way to decipher and preserve more scrolls from Herculaneum, as well as other ancient books, manuscripts and documents that are too fragile to be opened.
"No one has yet really figured out a way to open them," says Roger Macfarlane, a professor of classics at Brigham Young University who also has worked on scrolls from Herculaneum. "If Brent is successful it would be a huge, potentially monumental step forward."
Seales admits that there are hurdles, the biggest being the carbon-based ink thought to have been used on the scrolls. He says that since the papyrus in the scrolls was turned to carbon by the fury of Vesuvius, it might be impossible to visually separate the writing from the pages, even with powerful computer programs.
"The open question is, will we be able to read the writing?" Seales said. "There is a chance that we won't be able to do it with our current machine, and that we'll have to re-engineer some things. But if that's the case, that's what we will do."
Seales, who is from Buffalo, N.Y., grew up with two passions: computers and the humanities. His double major in undergraduate school was computer science and violin. While working on computer imaging in graduate school, Seales became interested in how that technology might be used to digitally preserve old manuscripts and documents.
By the early 1990s, he was developing systems to read old records that were crumpled and wrinkled with age. As a result, he joined an international computer team that digitized the oldest known complete text of Homer's Iliad, which is stored in Venice, Italy. The project, ultimately completed at UK's Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, produced new digital images, bringing to life sections of the text from the 10th century B.C. that previously were little more than ink smudges.
Developing a method to virtually unroll and copy ancient documents too delicate for normal handling was the next step. This is the system that Seales and his colleagues will use on the Herculaneum scrolls.
Hah. The bit I added to the title needs [sic] also. It should be ‘non-invasive’.
more like charcoal briquets [sic] than scrolls," Seales said
why the "sic" here?
oh, I see, I thought it was a paste of the original article and wondered how the editor would know if Seales misspelled something when he was speaking (pronunciation not involved)
Just send them to one of those hard disk recovery places.
This is all well and good, but in my opinion it isn’t a story until they try to read them and either fail or succeed. Saying they are going to do it isn’t a story, doing it is. The MSM gets desperate in their search for news I guess.
There must be a translator somewhere in Utah? You got a hat? I’ve got rocks!
It’s probably just me, but I read the article as a subtle request for grant money from some hedge fund moneybags who wants to launder his reputation.
“There’s a misprint in the next-to-last paragraph (I think)—”10th century B.C.” Homer wasn’t written down that early. In paragraph 4 of the article it says “10th century A.D.”; I think this may be correct. Right?”
This is in dispute, but the earliest dates posited are 8th-9th century BC, while others posit 6th-7th century BC. 10th century AD corresponds to Dark Ages/Middle Ages (1066=Norman conquest of England demarks the line between the 2), when the Greek and Roman empires were long dormant.
MAybe so; but is your zipper healed enough to actually USE them??
Oh, I hope they succeed! How cool!
Aren't you supposed to be in a meeting or something today?
A great Muddy Creek geode from here.
Thanks Mike Fieschko and grey_whiskers. There have been a few topics about these papyri, including at least one about a non-invasive method, but hey, it's been a while, so pingin' it.
· Discover · Nat Geographic · Texas AM Anthro News · Yahoo Anthro & Archaeo · Google ·
· The Archaeology Channel · Excerpt, or Link only? · cgk's list of ping lists ·
Scientists use MRI at Kadlec to look at ancient Roman scrolls
Tri-City Herald | Thursday, Jul. 10, 2008 | Sara Schilling
Posted on 07/11/2008 9:39:52 PM PDT by SunkenCiv
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.