Herculaneum papyri

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Herculaneum papyrus 1425 (De poem), drawn by Giuseppe Casanova, ca. 1807

The Herculaneum papyri are more than 1,800 papyri found in Herculaneum in the 18th century, carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

The papyri, containing a number of Greek philosophical texts, come from the only surviving library from antiquity that exists in its entirety.[1] Most of the work discovered are associated with the Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemus of Gadara.


Map of Villa of the Papyri.

In 1752, workmen of the Bourbon royal family accidentally discovered what is now known as the Villa of the Papyri.[1][2]

Some scholars believe there may still be a lower section of the Villa's collection still buried.[3]

Initial archaeology[edit]

In the 18th century, the first digs began. The excavation appeared closer to mining projects, as mineshafts were dug, and horizontal subterranean galleries were installed. Works would place objects in baskets and send them back up.[1]

With the backing of Charles III of Spain, Rocque Joaquín de Alcubierre headed the systematic excavation of Herculaneum with Karl Weber.[4]


Due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, bundles of scrolls were carbonized by the intense heat of the pyroclastic flows.[3] This intense parching took place over an extremely short period of time, in a room deprived of oxygen, resulting in the scrolls' carbonisation into compact and highly fragile blocks.[1] They were then preserved by the layers of cement-like rock.[3]


It is uncertain how many papyri were originally found as many of the scrolls were destroyed by workmen or when scholars extracted them from the volcanic tuff.[citation needed]

The official list amounts to 1,814 rolls and fragments, of which 1,756 had been discovered by 1855. The inventory now comprises 1826 papyri[5] More than 340 are almost complete, about 970 are partly decayed and partly decipherable, and more than 500 are merely charred fragments.[2]

Post-excavation history[edit]

In 1802, King Ferdinand IV of Naples offered six rolls to Napoleon Bonaparte in a diplomatic move. In 1803, along with other treasures, the scrolls were transported by Francesco Carelli. Upon receiving the gift, Bonaparte then gave the scrolls to Institut de France under charge of Gaspard Monge and Vivant Denon.[1]

In 1810, eighteen unrolled papyri were given to George IV, four of which he presented to the Bodleian Library; the rest are now mainly in the British Library.[2]


Early attempts[edit]

At the end of the 18th century, Abbot Piaggio invented a machine to unroll the strips, where they would be swiftly copied, reviewed by Hellenist academics, and then corrected once more, if necessary, by the unrolling/copying team.[1]

In 1802, King Ferdinand IV of Naples appointed Rev. John Hayter to assist the process.[1]

From 1802 to 1806, Hayter unrolled and partly deciphered some 200 papyri.[2] These copies are held in Bodleian Library, where they are known as the "Oxford Facsimiles of the Herculaneum Papyri".[1]

In January 1816, Pierre-Claude Molard and Raoul Rochette lead an attempt to unroll one papyrus with a replica of Abbot Piaggio's machine. However, the entire scroll was destroyed without any information being obtained.[1]

In 1877, a papyrus was brought to a laboratory in the Louvre. An attempt to unravel it was made with a 'small mill' , but it was unsuccessful and was partially destroyed - leaving a quarter intact.[1]

By the middle of the 20th century, only 585 rolls or fragments had been completely unrolled, and 209 unrolled in part. Of the unrolled papyri, about 200 had been deciphered and published, and about 150 only deciphered.[2]

Modern attempts[edit]

A copy of identifiable text of papyrus 152-157

The bulk of the preserved manuscripts are housed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

In 1969, Marcello Gigante found the creation of the International Center for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri (Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi; CISPE).[6] With the intention of working toward the resumption of the excavation of the Villa of the Papyri, and promoting the renewal of studies of the Herculaneum texts, the institution began a new method of unrolling. Using the 'Oslo' method, the CISPE team separated individual layers of the papyri. One of the scrolls exploded into 300 parts, and another did similarly but to a lesser extent.[1]

Since 1999, the papyri have been digitized by applying multi-spectral imaging (MSI) techniques. International experts and prominent scholars participated in the project. On 4 June 2011 it was announced that the task of digitizing 1,600 Herculaneum papyri had been completed.[7][8]

Since 2007, a team working with Institut de Papyrologie and group of scientists from Kentucky have been using x-rays and nuclear magnetic resonance to analyze the artifacts.[1]

In 2009, the Institut de France in conjunction with the French National Center for Scientific Research imaged two intact Herculaneum papyri using X-ray micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) to reveal the interior structures of the scrolls.[9][10] The team heading the project estimated that if the scrolls were fully unwound it would be between 36 to 49 feet long.[3] The internal structure of the rolls was revealed to be extremely compact and convoluted, defeating the automatic unwrapping computer algorithms that the team had developed. Manual examination of small segments of the internal structure of the rolls proved more successful, unveiling the individual fibres of the papyrus.[citation needed] Unfortunately, no ink could be seen on the small samples imaged, because the carbon-based ink are not visible on the carbonized scrolls.[3]

In 2015, a team led by Dr. Vito Mocella, from the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM),[11] has announced that "... X-ray phase-contrast tomography (XPCT) can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them."[12] The microscopic relief of letters - a tenth of a millimetre[11] - on the papyri seems to be enough to create a noticeable phase contrast with the XPCT scans. This team was even able to identify some writing on a still-rolled scroll.[3] With the aim of making these scans cogent, a team is working with the National Science Foundation and Google to develop software which can sort through these displaced letters and figure out where they are located on the scroll.[3]


Opening a scroll would often damage or destroy the scroll completely. If a scroll had been successfully opened, the original ink - exposed to air - would begin to fade. In addition, this form of unrolling often would leave pages stuck together omitting or destroying additional information.[3]

With X-ray micro-computed tomography (micro-CT), no ink can be seen as carbon-based ink is not visible on carbonized papyrus.[3]


A papyrus copy depicting the Epicurean tetrapharmakos in Philodemus' Adversus Sophistas - (P.Herc.1005), col. 5

Until the middle of the 18th century, the only papyri known were a few survivals from medieval times.[13] Most likely, these rolls would never have survived the Mediterranean climate and would have crumbled or been lost. Indeed, all these rolls have come from the only surviving library from antiquity that exists in its entirety.[1]

These papyri contain a large number of Greek philosophical texts. Large parts of Books XIV, XV, XXV, and XXVIII of the magnum opus of Epicurus, On Nature and works by early followers of Epicurus are also represented among the papyri.[6] 44 of the rolls[citation needed] have been identified as the work of Philodemus of Gadara, an Epicurean philosopher and poet. The manuscript "PHerc.Paris.2" contains part of Philodemus' On Vices and Virtues.[1]

The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus is attested to have written over 700 works,[14] all of them lost, with the exception of a few fragments quoted by other authors.[15] Segments of his works On Providence and Logical Questions were found among the papyri;[15] a third work of his may have been recovered from the charred rolls.[16]

Additional images[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Interview with Daniel Delattre: the Herculaneum scrolls given to Consul Bonaparte (2010), Napoleon.org
  2. ^ a b c d e Diringer, David (1982). The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental. New York: Dover Publications. pp. 252–6. ISBN 0-486-24243-9. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places - Smithsonian". smithsonianmag.com. 
  4. ^ "Since the Re-discovery - AD79eruption". google.com. 
  5. ^ (1986) IV. The Herculaneum Papyri, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 33, pp. 36–45
  6. ^ a b CISPE Il Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi
  7. ^ Digitization of Herculaneum Papyri Completed Insights 22/6 (2002) Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young U.
  8. ^ BYU Herculaneum Project Honored with Mommsen Prize Insights 30/1 (2010) Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young U.
  9. ^ EDUCE: Imaging the Herculaneum Scrolls (Video). Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments, U. Kentucky. 2011. 
  10. ^ W. Brent Seales, James Griffioen, Ryan Baumann, Matthew Field (2011) ANALYSIS OF HERCULANEUM PAPYRI WITH X-RAY COMPUTED TOMOGRAPHY Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments; U. Kentucky
  11. ^ a b c Jonathan Webb X-ray technique reads burnt Vesuvius scroll BBC News, Science & Environment, 20 January 2015
  12. ^ Vito Mocella, Emmanuel Brun, Claudio Ferrero & Daniel Delattre (2015) Revealing letters in rolled Herculaneum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging Nature Communications 6, 5895 doi:10.1038/ncomms6895
  13. ^ Frederic G. Kenyon, Palaeography of Greek papyri (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1899), p. 3.
  14. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, vii. 180
  15. ^ a b John Sellars, Stoicism. University of California Press, 2007. - p. 8
  16. ^ "The first of Chrysippus' partially preserved two or three works is his Logical Questions, contained in PHerc. 307 ... The second work is his On Providence, preserved in PHerc 1038 and 1421 ... A third work, most likely by Chrysippus is preserved in PHerc. 1020," Fitzgerald 2004, p. 11

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