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Scientists read Herculaneum papyrii without unrolling them

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Looks like they're zeroing in on the 3d imaging issues they first encounter a few years ago. This could be big if it gives us access to the writing in the burnt scroll. Imagine all the books of Livy, Polybius, etc., available.


 


Ok, it's only scrolls about Epicureanism that seem to be available for now but there are hopes that a full library is still awaiting beneath the ruins.


 


http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2015/0120/Scientists-read-ancient-volcano-charred-scrolls-without-unrolling-them


 



Using X-ray tomography, scientists have been able to read letters on scrolls buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the ancient town of Herculaneum.

 


Hundreds of ancient papyrus scrolls that were buried nearly 2,000 years ago after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius could finally be read, thanks to a new technique.


 


The X-ray-based method can be used to decipher the charred, damaged texts that were found in the ancient town of Herculaneum without having to unroll them, which could damage them beyond repair, scientists say.


One problem with previous attempts to use X-rays to read the scrolls was that the ancient writers used a carbon-based material from smoke in their ink, said study co-author Vito Mocella, a physicist at the National Research Council in Naples, Italy.


 


"The papyri have been burnt, so there is not a huge difference between the paper and the ink," Mocella told Live Science. That made it impossible to decipher the words written in the documents.


If the new method works, it could be used to reveal the secrets of one of the few intact libraries from antiquity, the researchers said. [See How the New X-ray Method Works]



Buried in ash

Both the Roman city of Pompeii and the nearby, wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum were wiped out whenMount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing thousands of people and covering fine villas in ash and lava.


In the 1750s, workers uncovered a library in a villa thought to be the home of a Roman statesman. The site, known as the Villa of the Papyri, contained nearly 2,000 ancient papyrus scrolls that had been charred by thevolcanic heat.


 


Since then, historians have tried many ingenious (and some not-so-ingenious) methods for reading the damaged scrolls.


 


"They poured mercury on them, they soaked them in rosewater — all kinds of crazy stuff," said Jennifer Sheridan Moss, a papyrologist at Wayne State University in Detroit and the president of the American Society of Papyrologists.


 


From the few scrolls that could be unrolled and deciphered, historians determined that the library was filled mainly with writings on Epicurean philosophy — a school of thought that holds, among other things, that the goal of human life is happiness, characterized by the absence of pain and mental strife — and was part of the collection of a prolific writer named Philodemus.


 


"Most of what we know of Epicureanism is from these papyri," Mocella said.


Though some of the methods used to unroll the scrolls, such as a clever unrolling machine designed by a monk in the 1700s, were fairly successful, most wound up damaging the fragile documents.


 



Revealing secrets

Historians decided that the potential for damage was too great, and thus locked the remaining scrolls, still rolled up, in the National Library of Naples in Italy. A few years ago, researchers tried to read the scrolls without unrolling them, using X-ray tomography, which takes X-rays from multiple angles to recreate a 3D image of an object.


 


But this process is based on the fact that hard, dense materials absorb more X-rays than softer materials, and it didn't work for the scrolls because the smoke-based ink was too similar to the charred paper.


So the team looked to a similar technique, called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. Because the letters on thepapyrus are slightly raised in height, the waves of X-rays that hit the letters would be reflected back with a slightly shifted phase, compared with the waves that hit the underlying material. By measuring this phase difference, the team was able to reproduce the shape of the letters inside the rolled scrolls.


 


So far, the team has analyzed six scrolls that were given to Napoleon Bonaparte as gifts and are now housed at the French Institute in Paris. They have deciphered some of the Greek letters and words written inside the rolled-up, burned, smushed scrolls.


 


Still, deciphering the words in the innermost layers was extremely challenging, the authors wrote in their paper.


 



Promising technique

The texts on the scrolls are unlikely to yield earth-shattering insights, given how many of the other scrolls have been deciphered, Moss said.


 


But the new technique holds promise for other burnt papyri as well, Moss said.


 


"Most people now believe there is a whole other library under there in that Villa of the Papyri," Moss told Live Science. That's because, in the Roman world, most libraries held all the Greek treatises in one section and all the Latin books in another, she said.


 


Archaeologists have a good idea of where the Latin library may be, but so far, they've found no trace of the Latin texts, in part because noxious gases released from the ground make the site difficult to excavate. But if they do find the hidden library, this new technique could become very useful there, Moss said.


"We could easily find more things that are in bad shape like this, and then the technology could be applied to them," Moss said.


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Geez, I'd never heard of this. I hope they can rescue these texts before it's too late for me. Anyone from the 1% who wanted to be in good odor with history from now on would just dump money into this effort.

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Geez, I'd never heard of this. I hope they can rescue these texts before it's too late for me. Anyone from the 1% who wanted to be in good odor with history from now on would just dump money into this effort.

 

I've had both those thoughts! Will I ever see the new results and who could step up to fund it.

 

I think the curator-head of the place made a decision a few years ago to not continue the dig looking for the library so the tech could catch up and due to money issues. Wikipedia gives a decent enough summation of the history--the villa where the papyrii were found is what the Getty museum design is based on. 

 

Amazingly there are a few writings from the last 100 year that were recovered and legible enough to publish, most from Philodemus a minor Epicurean philosopher LINK.

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One of the reasons why not more money is pumped into this is that most scholars were terribly disappointing by the contents of these scrolls - I know it sounds ridiculous, but everyone thought it would be the lost works of Livy or something like that. Finding a rather dull house philosopher just killed interest in them, sadly enough.


 


There are, furthermore, much more untranslated, unedited material than you can imagine, especially in papyri.


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One of the reasons why not more money is pumped into this is that most scholars were terribly disappointing by the contents of these scrolls - I know it sounds ridiculous, but everyone thought it would be the lost works of Livy or something like that. Finding a rather dull house philosopher just killed interest in them, sadly enough.

 

There are, furthermore, much more untranslated, unedited material than you can imagine, especially in papyri.

 

I confess I've had similar thoughts of "why this guy & not someone like Livy".

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Is there any index of the papyri you mention, Klingan? I guess that one must pick and chose the focus of limited resources. Still, there are often posts on Facebook about letters and laundry lists, and legal documents revealing fascinating moments of life. My feeling is that the high end authors would benefit from the context derived from such mundane documents, if for no other reason than a comparison of style. Philology also benefits from a wider range of sources. I guess my dream find would be a complete Sappho, and the expurgated chapters of the Satyricon.

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Is there any index of the papyri you mention, Klingan? I guess that one must pick and chose the focus of limited resources. Still, there are often posts on Facebook about letters and laundry lists, and legal documents revealing fascinating moments of life. My feeling is that the high end authors would benefit from the context derived from such mundane documents, if for no other reason than a comparison of style. Philology also benefits from a wider range of sources. I guess my dream find would be a complete Sappho, and the expurgated chapters of the Satyricon.

 

Much to discover at the Ancient Lives project:

 

The ANCIENT LIVES project mounts images of Greek papyri fragments online and asks volunteers to participate in the work on them. Many of these papyri have remained unstudied since they were discovered more than a century ago. You can help expedite the process of transcription and cataloguing. Our goal is to increase the momentum by which scholars have traditionally identified known and unknown literary texts, and the private documents and letters from Graeco-Roman Egypt. No one pair of eyes can see and read everything. Your results will be tabulated with those of thousands of others' contribution to the same effort.

 

Auris

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