Scrolls That Survived Vesuvius Divulge Their First Word

From deep within a papyrus scroll that has not been read in almost 2,000 years and would crumble to pieces if unrolled, researchers have retrieved a handful of letters and a single word: “porphyras, ancient Greek for “purple.”

Experts who announced the findings on Thursday hope that the techniques used will enable them to electronically reconstruct the full contents of the many Herculaneum scrolls that have been preserved but are too fragile to open. The scrolls were carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 that buried Pompeii and deluged Herculaneum with hot gases and volcanic mud.

The scrolls, which look like wrinkled lumps of coal, come from a grand villa thought to have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

A cache of some 800 scrolls was discovered in 1752 by workers excavating the villa. Scholars who tried to unroll them stopped after finding that their methods destroyed the scrolls while yielding very little text. None has been opened since the 19th century.

The new approach used to read the scrolls has been developed over the past 20 years by Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. It uses computer tomography, the same technique as in CT scans, plus advancements in artificial intelligence.

Unlike many ancient inks that contained metals, the ink used by the Herculaneum scribes was made from charcoal and water, and is barely distinguishable from the carbonized papyrus it rests on. Through constant refinements to Dr. Seales’s technique, the latest being the use of A.I. to help distinguish ink from papyrus, the scrolls have at last begun yielding a smattering of letters.

The word “porphyras” was visualized in August by Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old computer student; he won $40,000 for identifying 10 letters in the same small patch of scroll. A $10,000 prize went to Youssef Nader, a biorobotics graduate student who independently found the same word a few months later. Casey Handmer, an entrepreneur, won $10,000 for showing there was lots of ink within the unopened scrolls.

Dr. Seales expressed confidence that the whole contents of a scroll would be recoverable. His computer scans reveal dislocated strands that may have destroyed a few words, but he said software programs should be able to reconstruct missing text to the satisfaction of papyrologists.

“We can see damage inside the scroll but much of that can be digitally healed,” he said.

The news that a first Greek word has been recovered and that entire scrolls are potentially readable could have profound implications for classical scholarship.

Most of the excavated scrolls come from a single room that seems to have contained the personal library of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher employed by Piso, the villa’s owner. Many scholars think that Piso himself would have had a general library containing major Latin and Greek works, and that this library has yet to be found in the villa’s many unexcavated rooms.

“This was a cultivated Roman aristocrat’s country villa, and Piso would have had lots of books there, especially Latin ones, of which so far very few have been found in the villa,” said Robert Fowler, a classicist and papyrus expert at the University of Bristol in England.

A vast majority of ancient Latin and Greek texts have been lost. Sophocles wrote more than 120 plays, of which only seven have wholly survived. Just 35 books of Livy’s 142-volume history of Rome are known to exist. Almost all the poems of Sappho have vanished. Retrieving an entire classical library would vastly expand knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

“Recovering such a library would transform our knowledge of the ancient world in ways we can hardly imagine,” Dr. Fowler said. “The impact could be as great as the rediscovery of manuscripts during the Renaissance.”

Surviving Greek and Latin works have been copied many times. Some argue that the expensive hand copying of manuscripts through the Middle Ages would have preserved the best of ancient literature and left the not so good to perish. But survival seems to have been often a matter of chance, not careful selection.

All copies of Lucretius’s masterwork, ­“De Rerum Natura,” are descended from a single manuscript. The poems of Catullus also trace back to a single surviving copy. Recovery of Piso’s library, if he had one, could furnish many new masterpieces as well as authoritative versions of the much copied works that have survived.

CT-scanning a Herculaneum scroll retrieves an alphabet soup of letters. Dr. Seales realized that to make sense of them, he first had to unwrap the scrolls electronically and attach the letters to the proper surfaces. The progress he made convinced him that the project would be accelerated if he put his software programs in the public domain and offered prizes for certain milestones.

Some 1,500 people, many of them machine learning experts, are now working on the scrolls. Private donors have sponsored a $700,000 prize if someone this year can retrieve four separate passages of at least 140 characters, the length of a tweet.

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