Weekend Reads | Using Cutting-Edge Tech to Decipher Ancient Texts

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s read is a 2018 article in Smithsonian magazine that tells the story of how new technology is allowing scholars to read ancient texts that were thought to be forever lost to history.

Uruk, Nineveh, Babylon, Athens, Alexandria. Each of these ancient cities — and many more — had large, well-established libraries housing the collective knowledge of their societies in probably tens of thousands of papyrus scrolls. All of those libraries are gone: Some were destroyed when their host city was sacked in times of war, and others simply declined and eventually disappeared over time as successions of rulers became less interested in maintaining the collection.

But it turns out that at least part of one ancient library survived, in Herculaneum, a wealthy enclave near Pompeii. One of the residents of that city was the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, known as Piso. Piso’s wealth didn’t prevent his expansive villa from being buried in lava when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E. But in the mid-18th century, when the first level of the villa was excavated by an archeological team, workers found about 2,000 scrolls. The heat of Vesuvius’ eruption had instantly turned them all to black carbon, while maintaining their shape as rolled-up tubes. Some of the scrolls were thrown away by the workers, but when scholars at the time realized what they were, others were saved in the hope they could somehow be unrolled and read. Many attempts at unrolling them over the years have largely failed to do anything other than destroy them, but in recent times, researchers have been trying to find ways to “read” them without the need to open them up.

The same tools that medical professionals use to image human bodies — X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans — have turned out to be helpful, to a certain point: They can be used to generate extremely detailed three-dimensional images of the scrolls without unrolling them. But the hard part is telling the difference between the charred papyrus pages and the ink used to write on them.

Much of the work has been led by University of Kentucky professor Brent Seales. Seales, trained as a computer scientist, discovered that the ink on the Herculaneum scrolls, while mostly just charcoal and water, also contained a trace amount of lead that could be detected by the ultra-powerful X-ray machines used for physics experiments at large-scale particle accelerator facilities. Over many years, he has fought through bureaucracy to access a tiny portion of one of the Herculaneum scrolls in the Oxford University Library as well as a slice of time at a nearby particle accelerator to obtain an X-ray scan. But much of his energy has been focused on the other half of the problem: building computer software that can read the X-ray scans, digitally “unwrap” the scrolls, and identify the writings they contain, effectively turning a 3D scan of a tube of carbon into a series of 2D images of pages of text.

It’s been a slow process, but Seales and others have made some progress. And earlier this year, they managed to read their first word from an unrolled, digitized scroll. And now, a group of tech industry veterans have sponsored Vesuvius Challenge to encourage more people to get involved in using contemporary AI technology to try to detect more of the ink on the scrolls that Seales and his team have scanned so far. 

And here’s the best part: So far, only the first level of Piso’s villa in Herculaneum has ever been excavated. There are three more floors there, still buried, and no one knows what might be waiting there to be discovered. Some have speculated that the scrolls found so far were simply those that Piso’s servants were trying to remove in the mad rush to evacuate the city when the eruption occurred. If that’s true, then Piso’s library may still lie undiscovered in the deeper levels of his villa. It could contain thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of original scrolls from 2,000 years ago. And if Seales and others can work their magic on them, it could revolutionize our knowledge and understanding of Greek and Roman civilizations, and potentially bring back the philosophical and literary works from several cultures that were thought to be lost forever.

Buried by the Ash of Vesuvius, These Scrolls Are Being Read for the First Time in Millennia

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by AS photo family/Shutterstock.com.

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