The writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans helped form our civilization, and their rediscovery sparked the Renaissance. But many of the writings of the formative thinkers of the classical age have been lost. We only have one-third of the writings of Aristotle, and they were enough to create Western thought, shaping the very way we reason. What else did he have to say that has been lost, and what might that do? The founders of Western drama were the brilliant playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, both of whom wrote some 90 plays, but only 6 and 19 of their plays, respectively, have survived. (Go here for what else is missing.)
But archaeologists have discovered a large library from the Roman city of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the volcano that devastated Pompeii. The hot volcanic ash both preserved the library’s scrolls but also made them impossible to read. Attempts to unroll them to see what they contain makes them disintegrate. But now a technology has been developed that may allow us to read them. So far, the works that have been deciphered are ones we have already, but who knows what else the library may contain?
Researchers have found a key that may unlock the only library of classical antiquity to survive along with its documents, raising at least a possibility of recovering vanished works of ancient Greek and Roman authors such as the lost books of Livy’s history of Rome.
The library is that of a villa in Herculaneum, a town that was destroyed in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that obliterated nearby Pompeii. Though Pompeii was engulfed by lava, a mix of superhot gases and ash swept over Herculaneum, preserving the documents in a grand villa that probably belonged to the family of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.Pompeii’s decline has captured the attention of the European Union, which began an effort in February aiming to balance preservation with accessibility to tourists.
Though the hot gases did not burn the many papyrus rolls in the villa’s library, they turned them into cylinders of carbonized plant material. Many attempts have been made to unroll the carbonized scrolls since they were excavated in 1752. But all were highly destructive, and scholars eventually decided to leave the scrolls alone in the hope that better methods would be invented. More than 300 scrolls survive more or less intact, with many more fragments.
Researchers led by Vito Mocella, of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy, now say that for the first time, they can read letters inside the scrolls without unrolling them. Using a laserlike beam of X-rays from the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France, they were able to pick up the very slight contrast between the carbonized papyrus fibers and the ancient ink, soot-based and also made of carbon.The contrast has allowed them to recognize individual Greek letters from the interior of the roll, Dr. Mocella’s team reported on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. “At least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally,” Dr. Mocella said in an interview. His team is considering several ways to refine the power of their technique.