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What secrets have scientists learned from the ancient scrolls of Herculaneum, and How this discovery can change the world
What secrets have scientists learned from the ancient scrolls of Herculaneum, and How this discovery can change the world

The famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed not only the ancient city of Pompeii. Coastal Herculaneum was the first to be struck by the scorching heat and literally wiped off the face of the Earth. In this ancient city was the estate of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. This statesman had a rich library, which experts called the Villa of the Papyri. Unfortunately, all the ancient scrolls were completely charred and impossible to read. But scientists have found a way. What did the mysterious scrolls of Herculaneum reveal to modern science?

The origin of the scrolls of Herculaneum

In the library of Lucius Calpurnia Piso there were more than one thousand eight hundred scrolls of papyri. They were turned into blackened charred lumps. Finally, they are decrypted thanks to revolutionary multispectral imaging technology.

The scrolls, as a result of the volcanic eruption, turned into charred lumps

These ancient scrolls are the largest surviving library from the Greco-Roman era. They were discovered by Karl Weber, who directed the first legal excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. They began in 1749. He was one of the first and acted very slowly and carefully, trying to save as much as possible. Unfortunately, all his attempts to unwrap the papyri have failed. Weber cut the scrolls vertically in an attempt to sever the pages. As a result, most of the canvas was lost. All attempts to read the text destroyed more information than was received.

When trying to split the pages, most of the canvas was lost

A new word in the study of ancient texts

Researchers at the University of Kentucky, led by Professor Brent Sils, director of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, along with Diamond Light Source from the United Kingdom, took a different path. They bombarded the scrolls with high-energy X-rays. All data were analyzed using a computer program written by Dr. Seals. She helped to recognize the ink used to create the scrolls.

Papyri of Herculaneum in the National Library of Naples

The scientist said that in this way the internal structure of the scrolls will be visible immediately. The contents of the scrolls can be viewed with greater clarity than ever before. In order to decipher the text completely, you need such a level of detail to reveal the highly compressed layers on which the written is located. A computer program developed by Dr.Seels and his team is capable of amplifying this ink signal. She can train a computer algorithm to recognize it - pixel by pixel, in photographs of open fragments.

The scrolls of Herculaneum (Herculaneum Papyri) are kept in the National Library of Naples (Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli). Brent Seals has been trying to access these scrolls for over thirteen years. All the libraries in which these papyri are stored flatly refused him. Finally, the doctor succeeded in obtaining permission from the Institut de France, the owner of the six scrolls, to study three small fragments. They were from several papyri that were damaged when trying to unfold them.

Thanks to innovative technologies, it was possible to partially decipher what was written in the Herculaneum scrolls

After Dr.Seels was able to determine that a small amount of lead was present in the ink of some of the scrolls, the Institut de France gave him access to two intact papyri. After scanning with a high-resolution CT scanner, the ink was not found as the researchers hoped. The scientist spent two years at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. There he was able to create algorithms to interpret obscure data obtained using computed tomography and X-ray phase contrast tomography.

Fragment of a scroll with text

Armed with this new technology and a handheld Artec Space Spider scanner, Dr. Seals traveled to the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University. There he hoped to scan a fragment of one scroll. After months of research in Kentucky, Dr. Seals returned to the UK and used the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator.

The history of the ancient world will still present many surprises

Brent Seals was able to prove to a crowded conference room in Oxford that his method worked. The scientist presented a 3D image that showed individual pages. Previously it was considered absolutely impossible to separate them. Dr. Seals' amazing work has been received with enthusiasm by many scholars of ancient texts. Many scientists wish to use this technology in thousands of manuscripts that cannot be examined due to their fragile state.

The technology will make it possible to decipher many texts that were previously impossible to study due to their fragile state

According to Sils, what was read on the scrolls suggests that the principles of the teachings of Epicurus (Epicureanism) may be written on them. This philosophy was widespread in Rome from the beginning of the 1st century BC. Scrolls can also contain Latin texts. This hypothesis is based on the fact that the classical Roman libraries had both a Greek and a Latin section. Only a very small proportion of the Herculaneum scrolls are written in Latin. It is possible that most of them from the Latin section have not yet been excavated by archaeologists.

A papyrologist from the University of Oxford, Dr. Dirk Obbink, who takes part in the study, agrees with this opinion. He says that only two years ago, scientists discovered one of the previously unknown works of Seneca the Elder. One can only guess what other amazing discoveries are ahead for researchers. Obbink hopes that the scrolls may contain long-lost works as well. For example, poems by Sappho or a treatise by Mark Antony, written by him about his own drunkenness.

Gregory Hayworth, a scientist at the University of Rochester in New York, said: “We will change the canon. I think that the next generation will have a completely different picture of antiquity."

If you are interested in the topic, read our article the curse of ancient Pompeii: why tourists are returning stolen artifacts en masse.

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