In 79 AD Mount Vesuvius blows its top in a catastrophically destructive eruption. The Roman city of Pompeii and many of its citizens are obliterated. So too is the neighboring city of Herculaneum, where a massive library – stacked with scrolls from the ancient world – is carbonized by the intense heat. And as a result of the volcano, irreplaceable works of literature and philosophy are lost forever. Or are they?
Before we answer that question, let’s go back to that day in August. Even after the passage of centuries, we know plenty about what happened on that occasion and in that place. That’s because a Roman poet, Pliny the Younger, witnessed events and wrote down what he saw.
And there had been a harbinger of things to come well before Vesuvius erupted, as a major earthquake had caused extensive damage to areas around the mountain 17 years previously. But smaller earth tremors were commonplace in the Bay of Naples; when there were a series of them in late August of 79 AD, then, people didn’t pay much attention. That was a mistake.
An intense eruption then rumbled on for 48 hours. Still, the effects weren’t immediately evident; indeed, Pliny recorded that all seemed well during the morning of August 24. Later in the day, however, a tower of black smoke emerged from the peak of Vesuvius, and hot ash and rocks began to rain down on Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Then came the deadly lava – in liquid rivers that destroyed all in their path. The eruption ultimately finished in the latter part of the afternoon on August 25. And once the molten lava had cooled, Pompeii and Herculaneum lay under as much as 60 feet of volcanic rock.
Centuries on, Pompeii is now one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Much of the area has been excavated, with some exquisite examples of Roman art being revealed in the process. On a more gruesome note, the remains of many of Pompeii’s unfortunate residents have also been uncovered; and these people’s poses upon death were later replicated through the use of plaster casts.
Yet although Herculaneum was also comprehensively destroyed, the former town is much less well known than its large neighbor across the Bay of Naples. Herculaneum was home to approximately 4,000 souls at the time of the eruption; it had likely been originally founded by the Greeks over 400 years previously.
Meanwhile, one particularly lavish villa in Herculaneum is believed to have belonged to no less than Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Piso was a noted politician of the day as well as a very rich man, and the sumptuous décor of his villa reflected his elevated position in Roman society.
Indeed, Piso’s home was richly furnished with not only elaborate frescoes but also beautifully made bronze and marble statues of the very highest quality. When the villa was first excavated in the mid-18th century, however, it wasn’t these outstanding art works that arguably received the most attention.
That’s because there was also a library in Piso’s dwelling – far and away the most complete room of its kind from the classical world that has ever been discovered. This particular area of the house was well-stocked too, containing as it did more than 1,800 rolled scrolls made from papyrus – an early form of paper.
The scrolls themselves weren’t in good condition upon their discovery, however. While the volcano may have preserved the papers, it had also carbonized them – making them impossible to unfurl and read. In fact, when the papyri were first uncovered in 1752, it was thought that they were lumps of coal, and so many were burned or discarded.
Then an artist, Camillo Paderni, got his hands on the scrolls and made the first of what were to be several attempts at unrolling the carbonized lumps. He decided to cut the scrolls down the middle and then to brush away at the papyrus in an effort to reveal different layers. The Italian’s main achievement, though, was to ruin many of the priceless manuscripts.
Not long after Paderni’s disastrous venture, a priest from the Vatican, Antonio Piaggio, came at the problem with a different approach. He rigged up a contraption that gently prized the scrolls apart. And while some pieces of text were uncovered, the machine had a tendency to tear off thin strips of papyrus – revealing little that was informative.
Therefore, in the 19th century, a halt was called on these hare-brained schemes to try and unravel the ancient scrolls. It may have become clear that nothing of substance was being discovered. And, worse than that, the scrolls were often being damaged beyond repair.
Progress was eventually made in the 1980s, however. During that decade, two academics, Dirk Obbink and Daniel Delattre, devised a way to put the fragments of scrolls that had earlier been unrolled into their correct positions relative to one another.
Then, in the 1990s scientists at Brigham Young University trialed an imaging technique that used infrared light to increase the legibility of the damaged scrolls – this process was also successful. One man thought that he could do even better when it came to unraveling the secrets of the papyri, however.
The University of Kentucky’s Brent Seales had a rather ambitious aim, however: to read the scrolls without ever opening them. And it seemed to him that the way forward in that endeavor was to use X-ray technology.
In an April 2018 interview with CBS, Seales said, “People were going to the doctor every day. And they were doing a CT scan or an MRI. And they were seeing inside their body completely non-invasively. If you can do that to a human in the doctor’s office, why couldn’t we see inside a scroll? That was the thinking.”
But the equipment that Seales would need to achieve this was very far from the CT scanner at your local hospital. In fact, the technology needed was some of the most advanced X-ray machinery there is, and it’s housed at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire, England. Ultimately, then, using the facilities available at Diamond Light Source, researchers would try to see into one of these enigmatic scrolls.
And when Seales announced the results of the experiment in March 2018, it appeared that it had been a success. In fact, the cutting-edge method of reading the priceless scrolls – without destroying them – had even revealed new information. Now, though, Seales faces a task almost as challenging: he has to persuade the keepers of the hundreds of remaining unopened scrolls to let him work on these jealously guarded and priceless artifacts.