The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How do you read ancient scrolls too brittle to unfurl? An American scientist may have an answer.

Fabrizio Diozzi, head of the papyrus collection at the National Library in Naples, walks through the library last week. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)
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NAPLES — In one of the quietest parts of a national library, down narrow hallways and through keyhole doorways, a nondescript set of cabinets holds one of the oldest written collections in Western civilization. There is one problem: The scrolls are illegible.

They look a lot like incinerated firewood. They were carbonized in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, entombed underground for more than a millennium and discovered 267 years ago — the pages of papyrus fused together like rings of an oak.

A few enterprising conservationists over the years attempted a delicate unfurling process. But the methods were destructive, and so Italy left the unopened scrolls largely untouched — their contents unknown.

Last month, though, three scrolls and another scroll fragment were transported by library officials in a custom carrying case to California with the hope that new technology can unlock the secrets. The project seeks to read the scrolls without unfurling them, first by using a high-resolution CT scan, then by using software to analyze a mountain of data and “digitally unwrap” the text.

The researchers involved say they have not yet determined the readability of the scrolls — and it will take months to sift through the data. But the technology, if it works, will help illuminate the only large collection of original texts to survive from Greco-Roman antiquity, bringing to life a collection thought to be irreparably damaged and inaccessible.

“Fifteen years ago, this would have been science fiction,” said Fabrizio Diozzi, who is the head of the papyrus collection at the National Library in Naples and helped carry the scrolls to Los Angeles.

The computer scientist leading the work, Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, has already had other breakthroughs. In 2016, his team decoded an unopened and charred ancient scroll from Israel that was revealed to contain the book of Leviticus written in Hebrew.

But the attempt to read the scrolls — named the Herculaneum scrolls for the town where they were found — is far more challenging, because they are written with carbon-based ink; the text is carbon hidden inside carbon.

Seales tried to scan two of the scrolls in 2009. “But the resolution wasn’t quite good enough,” said Christy Chapman, a researcher who is part of the University of Kentucky’s digital restoration initiative.

Chapman said subsequent advances have made the work more feasible. In a paper published earlier this year, Seales and his team wrote that Herculaneum papyri “represent a perfect storm of challenges for the virtual unwrapping process.” But Seales said certain trace signals can now help distinguish the carbon ink from the carbonized papyrus.

The researchers depend on a painstaking process in which each scroll is scanned for roughly 24 hours. The scans produce a set of cross-sectional images, each resembling a topographic map, showing the internal contours of the wound papyrus. The scanning also collects data about the surface of the scrolls, including any signals of ink. Software takes that information and aims to convert it into something readable, mapping out the shape of the papyrus, along with any detectable text.

A 2018 Smithsonian magazine article described Seales’s first visit to the Neapolitan library, in 2005, as an “almost otherworldly” experience. “We were looking at manuscripts that represent the biggest mysteries that I can imagine,” Seales said.

Among the fragments of Herculaneum scroll that have already been unfurled and deciphered — in attempts beginning in the 18th century — papyrus scholars have found philosophical works describing geometry, physics, music and death. Some are from the philosopher and poet Philodemus, who lived in the 1st century B.C. and whose works and personal collection were being housed at a luxurious villa — purportedly belonging to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar — when volcanic Mount Vesuvius buried the town in A.D. 79.

A few Herculaneum scrolls, discovered in 1752, are scattered at other sites across Europe. But the bulk of the scrolls, 400 of which remain unopened, are housed at the government library in Naples, held in sliding drawers, in an area closed to regular visitors.

Diozzi, the head of the department, said he admires the ingenuity of earlier attempts to unfurl the scrolls. One was carried out in the 1700s by a Vatican priest, Antonio Piaggio, who used sticky animal membranes and weighted strings to carefully coax the scrolls open. But the scrolls are so delicate that, even when they sit untouched, they shed particles. Piaggio’s attempts yielded Swiss-cheese pieces and stuck pages, as well as a few satisfying fragments.

“This is what an unwrapped papyrus fragment looks like,” Diozzi said Thursday during a tour of the library. He opened a narrow drawer, revealing a postcard-size piece of the papyrus. It looked like tree bark.

The scanning took place at the UCLA dental lab. The work, funded by the Mellon Foundation, took three days and yielded what Diozzi jokingly called “a huge amount of data with no meaning at all,” until it is analyzed.

Diozzi said he did not want to get too excited about the possibilities. But he said there were plans in the works for Seales to continue his study on other scrolls ruined by Vesuvius.

“When it comes to the Herculaneum scrolls, even a few words would be invaluable,” Diozzi said. If the technology works, he said, it will be a “revolution.”

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