Secrets of the Scrolls
An American computer scientist’s new X-ray technique promises to decipher 2,000-yearold texts buried by the eruption of Vesuvius
A revolutionary American scientist is using subatomic physics to decipher 2,000-year
from the early days of Western civilization
It’s July 12, 2017,
It’s July 12, 2017,
and Jens Dopke walks into a windowless room in Oxfordshire, England, all of his attention trained on a small, white frame that he carries with both hands. The space, which looks like a futuristic engine room, is crowded with sleek metal tables, switches and platforms topped with tubes and boxes. A tangle of pipes and wires covers the walls and floor like vines.
In the middle of the room, Dopke, a physicist, eases the frame into a holder mounted on a metal turntable, a red laser playing on the back of his hand. Then he uses his cellphone to call his colleague Michael Drakopoulos, who is sitting in a control room a few yards away. “Give it another half a millimeter,” Dopke says. Working together, they adjust the turntable so that the laser aligns perfectly with a dark, charred speck at the center of the frame.
Dozens of similar rooms, or “hutches,” are arrayed around this huge, doughnut-shaped building, a type of particle accelerator called a synchrotron. It propels electrons to near light speed around its 500-meter-long ring, bending them with magnets so they emit light. The resulting radiation is focused into intense beams, in this case high-energy X-rays, which travel through each hutch. That red laser shows the path the beam will take. A thick lead shutter, attached to the wall, is all that stands between Dopke and a blast of photons ten billion times brighter than the Sun.
The facility, called Diamond Light Source, is one of the most powerful and sophisticated X-ray facilities in the world, used to probe everything from viruses to jet engines. On this summer afternoon, though, its epic beam will focus on a tiny crumb of papyrus that has already survived one of the most destructive forces on the planet—and 2,000 years of history. It comes from a scroll found in Herculaneum, an ancient Roman resort on the Bay of Naples, Italy, that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In the 18th century, workmen employed by King Charles III of Spain, then in charge of much of southern Italy, discovered the remains of a magnificent villa, thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (known as Piso), a wealthy statesman and the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The luxurious residence had elaborate gardens surrounded by colonnaded walkways and was filled with beautiful mosaics, frescoes and sculptures. And, in what was to become one of the most frustrating archaeological discoveries ever, the workmen also found approximately 2,000 papyrus scrolls.
The scrolls represent the only intact library known from the classical world, an unprecedented cache of ancient knowledge. Most classical texts we know today were copied, and were therefore filtered and distorted, by scribes over centuries, but these works came straight from the hands of the Greek and Roman scholars themselves. Yet the tremendous volcanic heat and gases spewed by Vesuvius carbonized the scrolls, turning them black and hard like lumps of coal. Over the years, various attempts to open some of them created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text. Hundreds of the papyri were therefore left unopened, with no realistic prospect that their contents would ever be revealed. And it probably would have remained that way except for an American computer scientist named Brent Seales, director of the Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky.
Seales is in the control room now, watching intently: frowning, hands in pockets, legs wide.
The papyrus scrap in the white frame, held between two layers of transparent orange film, is just three millimeters across, and sports one barely visible letter: an old-fashioned Greek character called a lunate sigma, which looks like a lowercase “c.” Next to the turntable, shielded inside a tungsten tube, is a high-resolution X-ray detector, called HEXITEC, that has taken engineers ten years to develop. Seales believes that it will pick up the desperately faint signal he’s looking for and, in doing so, “read” the tiny Greek letter. “When I started thinking about this, this technology didn’t exist,” he says. “I don’t think there’s another detector in the world right now that could do this kind of measurement.” If it works, imaging the single letter on this charred crumb could help to unlock the secrets of the entire library.
A wailing alarm sounds as Dopke exits the hutch before Drakopoulos swings shut the 1,500-pound, lead-lined door. Back in the control room, computer screens show a live feed of the papyrus from multiple angles as Drakopoulos clicks his mouse to raise the shutter and flood the hutch with radiation. Sitting next to him, an engineer
prepares to capture data from the detector. “Ready?” he asks. “I’m going to press Play.”
SEA LES, WHO IS 54, has wide-set eyes beneath a prominent brow, and an air of sincere and abiding optimism. He’s an unlikely pioneer in papyrus studies. Brought up near Buffalo, New York, he has no training in the classics. While European curators and textual scholars yearn to discover lost works of classical literature in the Herculaneum scrolls, Seales, an evangelical Christian, dreams of finding letters written by the apostle Paul, who was said to have traveled around Naples in the years before Vesuvius erupted.
Seales came of age in the 1970s and ’80s—the era of early video games, when big-dreaming Californians were building computers in their garages—and he was a techie from a young age. With no money for college, but with a brain for complex mathematics and music (he played violin at his local church), Seales won a double scholarship from the University of Southwestern Louisiana to study computer science and music. Later, while earning his doctorate, at the University of Wisconsin, he became fascinated with “computer vision,” and began writing algorithms to convert two-dimensional photographs into 3-D models—a technique that later enabled vehicles such as Mars rovers, for example, to navigate terrain on their own. Seales went to work at the University of Kentucky in 1991, and when a colleague took him along to the British Library to photograph fragile manuscripts, Seales, captivated by the idea of seeing the unseeable, found the challenge thrilling.
The British Library project was part of a “digital renaissance” in which millions of books and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts were photographed for posterity and stored online. Seales helped make a digital version of the only surviving copy of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, using ultraviolet light to enhance the surviving text. But working with the warped, cockled pages made him realize the inadequacy of two-dimensional photographs, in which words can be distorted or hidden in creases and folds.
So in 2000, he created three-dimensional computer models of the pages of a damaged manuscript, Otho B.x (an 11th-century collection of saints’ lives), then developed an algorithm to stretch them, producing an artificial “flat” version that didn’t exist in reality. When that worked, he wondered if he could go even further, and use digital imaging not just to flatten crinkled pages but to “virtually unwrap” unopened scrolls—and reveal texts that hadn’t been read since antiquity. “I realized that no one else was doing this,” he says.
He began to experiment with a medical-grade computed tomography (or CT) scanner, which uses X-rays to create a three-dimensional image of an object’s internal structure. First, he tried imaging the paint on a modern rolled-up canvas. Then he scanned his first authentic object—a 15th-century bookbinding thought to contain a fragment of Ecclesiastes hidden inside. It worked.
Buoyed by his success, Seales imagined reading fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest biblical writings ever found, dating to as far back as the third century B.C., sections of which remain unopened today. Then, in 2005, a classicist colleague took him to Naples, where many of the excavated Herculaneum scrolls are displayed at the National Library, a few steps from a window with a view across the bay to Vesuvius itself. Seared by gases at hundreds of degrees centigrade and superheated volcanic materials that in time hardened into 60 feet of rock, the distorted, crumbling rolls were believed by most scholars to be the very definition of a lost cause.
For Seales, viewing them was an “almost otherworldly” experience, he says. “I realized that there were many dozens, probably hundreds, of these intact scrolls, and nobody had the first idea about what the text might be. We were looking at manuscripts that
represent the biggest mysteries that I can imagine.”
HE ISN ’ T THE FIRST TO TRY to solve these mysteries. In 1752, when Charles III’s workmen found the carbonized lumps inside what’s now known as the Villa dei Papiri, they assumed they were pieces of coal and burned them or threw them in the sea. But once they were identified as scrolls, Camillo Paderni, an artist in charge of the recovered antiquities, set about opening the remaining ones. His method involved slicing the rolls in half, copying any visible text, then scraping away each layer in turn to reveal what was beneath. Hundreds of rolls were transcribed that way—and destroyed in the process.
In 1754, a Vatican priest and conservator named Antonio Piaggio dreamed up a new scheme: He glued goldbeater’s skin (a calf ’s extremely thin yet tough intestinal membrane) to a scroll’s surface, then used a contraption involving weights on strings to ease it open. Artists watched this excruciatingly slow process and copied any exposed writing in pencil sketch- es known as disegni. Many of the flaky outer layers of the scrolls were removed before the inner portion could be unwound, and the papyrus often tore off in narrow strips, leaving layers stuck together. Hundreds of scrolls were pulled apart using Piaggio’s machine, but they revealed only limited text.
Scholars searching the transcribed fragments for lost works of literature have largely been disappoint- ed. A few pieces of Latin works were discovered, including parts of the Annales, by Quintus Ennius, a second-century B.C. epic poem about the early history of Rome, and Carmen de bello Actiaco, which tells of the final hours of Antony and Cleopatra. The vast majority of the opened scrolls contained Greek philosophical texts, relating to the ideas of Epicurus, an Athenian philosopher in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C., who believed that everything in nature is made up of atoms too small to see. Some are by Epicurus himself, such as a piece of On Nature, a huge work that was previously known but lost. But most are by Philodemus, an Epicurean employed by Piso in the first century B.C., and cover Epicurus’ views on ethics, poetry and music.
“I thought, I’m a year away. All I have to do is get access to the scrolls, and we can solve this.”
That was 13 years ago.
None of the Herculaneum scrolls has been opened since the 19th century, and scholars have instead focused on squeezing information out of the already-revealed texts. A step forward came in the 1980s, when Dirk Obbink of Oxford University and Daniel Delattre of France’s National Center for Scientific Research independently worked out how to reassemble fragments dissected under Paderni. In the 1990s, Brigham Young University researchers photographed the surviving opened papyri using multispectral imaging, which deploys a range of wavelengths of light to illuminate the text. Infrared light, in particular, increased the contrast between the black ink and dark background. That was a “huge breakthrough,” says Obbink. “It enabled us to read vastly more of the unrolled rolls.”
The new images triggered a wave of scholarship into Epicurean philosophy, which had been poorly understood compared with the rival ideas of Plato, Aristotle or the Stoics. But the texts were still incomplete. The beginnings of all the manuscripts remain missing. And the prose is often scrambled, because letters and words from different layers of a scroll wound up next to one another in two-dimensional renderings. “What we’d really like to do,” says Obbink, “is to read a text from beginning to end.”
That was thought impossible, until Seales saw the scrolls in Naples and realized that his research had been leading to exactly this grand challenge. “I thought, I’m a year away,” Seales says. “All I have to do is get access to the scrolls, and we can solve this.”
That was 13 years ago.
SEALES VASTLY UNDERESTIMATED, among other things, the difficulty of getting permission even to study the scrolls. Conservators are understandably reluctant to hand out these terribly fragile objects, and the library in Naples refused Seales’ requests to scan one. But a handful of Herculaneum papyri ended up in England and France, as gifts from Ferdinand, son of Charles III and King of Naples and Sicily. Seales collaborated with Delattre and the Institut de France, which has six scrolls in its possession. Two of the scrolls are in hundreds of pieces after past attempts to open them, and Seales eventually received permission to study three small fragments.
The first problem he hoped to solve was how to detect ink hidden inside rolled-up scrolls. From the late third century A.D. onward, ink tended to include iron, which is dense and easy to spot in X-ray images. But the papyri found at Herculaneum, created before A.D. 79, were written with ink made primarily of charcoal mixed with water, which is extremely difficult to distinguish from the carbonized papyrus it sits on.
At his lab in Kentucky, Seales subjected the papyrus scraps to a battery of noninvasive tests. He looked for trace elements in the ink—anything that might show up in CT—and discovered tiny amounts of lead, perhaps contamination from a lead inkwell or water pipe. It was enough for the Institut de France to give him access to two intact papyri: blackened sausage-shaped artifacts that Seales nicknamed “Banana Boy” and “Fat Bastard.” Seales
This Herculaneum scroll, rendered in 3-D, was given by King Ferdinand of Naples to the Prince of Wales in exchange for a giraffe for his private zoo. The 3-D template can be combined with high-resolution images and infrared photography to reveal...