Se­crets of the Scrolls

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents - By Jo Marchant

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

old texts

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

pho­to­graphs by HEN­RIK KNUD­SEN

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...

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