History Stories

New X-ray technology can decipher text from papyrus scrolls buried in the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

On August 24, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted near present-day Naples, Italy, infamously eviscerating the Roman city of Pompeii. Nearby Herculaneum, a smaller, coastal city of perhaps 5,000, which was closer to the volcano’s principal vent, took even more of a direct hit. Named for the mythological half-god Hercules, it is thought to have been a favorite summer haunt for affluent Romans, who built luxurious villas there. But it essentially disappeared from history after being buried under over 60 feet of super-heated volcanic material. “You’ve got evidence of this really powerful surge coming through and moving very heavy objects,” explained Roger T. Macfarlane, a classicist at Brigham Young University, “but also simultaneously preserving some very delicate objects.”

Herculaneum remained undisturbed until 1709, when workers digging a well for a monastery uncovered some samples of marble. Over the next few decades, additional precious artifacts were recovered, attracting the attention of Charles, the Bourbon king of Naples and Sicily (and future king of Spain). “These guys are going through like miners bringing up to the surface marble statuary and bronze statuary such that no one had seen before,” Macfarlane said. Under Charles’ supervision, excavators also discovered the so-called Villa of the Papyri—the model for the J. Paul Getty Museum’s villa in Los Angeles—which some scholars believe belonged to the descendants of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. By 1752 excavators began finding papyrus scrolls at this site and by 1754 they had unearthed an entire library. To this day, it is the only library from classical antiquity known to have survived with its documents intact.

Herculaneum scrolls (Credit: Salvatore Laporta/AP)

Herculaneum scrolls (Credit: Salvatore Laporta/AP)

At first, as a result of their carbonization into blackened cylinders, no one may have recognized them as papyrus scrolls, according to Macfarlane. “There are legends told about how they were mistaken at first for fish nets or rope, and then it wasn’t until someone broke one open and saw there was text inside that they stopped throwing them on the fire for fuel,” he said. Subsequent attempts to open the scrolls proved hardly less destructive. Some researchers, for example, scraped layers away after copying down whatever words they could decipher. “Lots of text was lost,” Macfarlane said, adding that it “flies in the face of modern conservation science because none of it is reversible.” As late as the 1980s, two scrolls were picked apart into small pieces in an attempt to unlock their secrets.

As technology improved, however, researchers began exploring non-invasive solutions. In 1999, Macfarlane and other BYU professors launched a project in which they used multispectral imaging to improve the readability of scrolls that had already been opened. Then, a few years ago, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky successfully mapped out the interior of two unopened scrolls that had come into the possession of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 (they are now housed at the Institut de France). Using a CT scan-like process called X-ray computed tomography, he determined that the scrolls were between 36 feet to 49 feet long. But he was unable to read their carbon-based ink, which blended in with their carbonized background.

Excavated ruins of Herculaneum

Excavated ruins of Herculaneum

For the latest study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, a team of researchers tried a slightly different technique called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. Using X-ray beams from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, they were able to decipher many Greek letters, along with the words “would fall” and “would say,” from two unopened scrolls. Though hardly a complete translation, the study’s authors predicted that by tinkering with their methods they could soon bring the full documents to light. “We can celebrate that we will eventually be able to read these precious past testimonies while, at the same time, preserving them,” lead author Vito Mocella, of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, said in a statement. “This is the beginning of our superb adventure to read lost literature!”

Most of the known scrolls at the Herculaneum library come from the Epicurean school of philosophy, which emphasized friendship and other simple pleasures of life. Particularly prevalent are the works of Philodemus, a contemporary of the great orator Cicero and an instructor of the poet Virgil. In fact, the authors of Tuesday’s study hypothesized that he had penned the two texts they looked at. “To have more writing from a person like this is a potential treasure trove for anyone interested in studying Rome’s Golden Age,” Macfarlane said. Yet he also expressed hope that vanished texts from other well-known Latin and Greek authors would be found, perhaps even, say, a play from Sophocles.

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