Saturday, January 24, 2015

Herculaneum: Where Particle Physics and Papyrology Meet

I love what I do. Just when you think nothing can surprise you any more, something always lights up your horizon in the world of the ancient history and biblical studies. NPR just released a fascinating radio story on a major breakthrough in papyrological studies: using a particle accelerator developed in France, papyrologists are beginning to read the text off of a fossilized papyrus scroll without having to open it. You can listen to the radio show here, and read more from the technical published article on which the show is based at Nature Communications
Photo of a rolled up, charred scroll uncovered from the Herculaneum
library which was buried under volcanic ash in AD 70
Photo credit:
   Since my research agenda involves the intersection between ancient philosophical discourse and Paul, and my next major monograph will be on Paul and the Epicureans (right after I'm done with my 1st one.... almost there by the way!), I have been reading the philosophical writings of Philodemus uncovered from the ancient library at Herculaneum in Italy for some time. The villa of Piso (Julius Caesar's father-in-law) near the seaport of Herculaneum, along with the entire city of Pompeii just 9 miles south, if you recall, was buried under volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 70. Hopefully some of you had a chance to see the exhibit of Pompeii when it circulated nationally in the States back in 2006. It was stunning! and my sons and I had a great learning experience when the exhibit was displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago. 
   To appreciate the NPR article, let me digress a bit to explain succinctly the process that archaeologists and papyrologists undertake to reconstruct an ancient text from papyri. When I work with the ancient texts, I almost always deal with the published form, like this example from Richard Janko's Philodemus: On Poems, Book 1 (The Asthetic Works 1:1; New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 260
Print edition: P Herc 460, Column 67, lines 1-10
The above critical, published text is reconstructed, with conjectures on what the text might be in brackets since there are gaps or unreadable sections in the original papyrus.
    But in order for me to read the above, some enterprising papyrologist had to do the hard work of unrolling a brittle, charred scroll. As soon as you unroll the scroll, it starts to fall apart and you are left with hundreds of fragments that need to be carefully put together with the other fragments in correct order, much like how a person has to solve a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but in this case, you might be missing many of the pieces, or some of the pieces are stuck together and you have to take them apart before finishing the puzzle. Here is the same text above but as a photo of its original fragment: 
Photo of P Herc 460, fragment 1
This piece, however, needs to be laid aside the other pieces to reconstruct the full text. Many times the texts are illegible and have to viewed under a multi-spectral, infra-red light in order to read the ink (click the link for a youtube video on the process). Without the infra-red light, it looks much more like a charred mess: 
Almost completely illegible charred Herc papyrus fragment
Photo Credit: The Friends of the Herculaneum Society
Fragments from an unrolled scroll put back together
Photo credit:
Often papyrologists double as artists and sketch their reconstructed texts in their notebooks. Here again is the same P Herc 460 fragment (highlighted in yellow) but hand-drawn and put to gether with other fragments:
P Herc 460, frag 1-4, redrawn by F. Casanova
(frag 1 is highlighted in yellow)
   What makes the NPR article, now, so exciting, is that with the particle accelerator and technique called "X-ray phase-contrast tomography," they can read the ink off the papyrus scroll without having to unroll it. This way, the rolled scroll is kept from potentially being destroyed by the unrolling process. The technique still needs further refinement but if all goes well, we might see previously unpublished scrolls accessible to the academy and public when their texts are reconstructed and made available in the print edition. I don't have the expertise to do any of the above, except to read the printed form of the texts. So I'll have to eagerly await along with everyone else what treasures can be unlocked when particle phyics and papyrology collide at Herculaneum!
   Want to watch a video demonstration of the process? See the youtube video demonstration below from the University of Kentucky lab team. Wow!

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