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. After various methods of manipulation, a method was found to unroll and to read them.

The papyri, containing a number of Greek philosophical texts, come from a single personal library associated with the Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemus, who has been identified as the author of 44 rolls.

Discovery and unrolling[edit]

Between 1752 and 1754, workmen of the Bourbon royal family uncovered numerous papyrus rolls in what is now known as the Villa of the Papyri.[1] Many of the rolls were destroyed by the workmen, others were destroyed when extracted from the volcanic tuff. It is uncertain how many papyri were originally found. 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[2] More than 340 are almost complete, about 970 are partly decayed and partly decipherable, and more than 500 are merely charred fragments.[1]

Attempts at unrolling were made by H. Davy in 1818, and by Friedrich Carl Ludwig Sickler in 1817–1819. From 1802 to 1806 the Rev. John Hayter unrolled and partly deciphered some 200 papyri.[1]

In 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.[1]

The bulk of the preserved manuscripts are housed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. In 1806 six rolls were presented to Napoleon Bonaparte. 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.[1]

In 1969 the International Center for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri (Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi – CISPE) was founded on the initiative of Marcello Gigante. The center was founded for two purposes: working toward the resumption of the excavation of the Villa of the Papyri and promoting the renewal of studies of the texts of Herculaneum.[3]

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.[4][5]

Virtual unrolling of the rolls[edit]

In 2009, two intact Herculaneum papyri housed in the collections of the Institute de France in Paris were imaged using X-ray micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) by a team led by Brent Seales.[6][7]

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, revealing the individual fibres of the papyrus.

Unfortunately, no ink was visible on any of the small samples imaged, probably because carbon-based black inks had been used in antiquity, which have a much lower contrast to the blackened papyrus than inks with metallic bases.

Progress with this promising technique thus most likely depends on the development of higher resolution micro-CT scanners so that computer algorithms can be created that will unwrap rolls automatically. A method is also needed to increase the contrast between the carbon-based ink and the charred papyrus.

Reading the scrolls[edit]

In early 2015 a team led by Dr Vito Mocella has announced that "... X-ray phase-contrast tomography can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them."[8] "I don't think the technique is perfect," said Dr Mocella, who is now looking at how it can be improved.[9]


Until the middle of the 18th century the only papyri known were a few survivals from medieval times.[10] The rolls, which were part of a library of Greek and Latin texts from the Ancient era, would never have survived the Mediterranean climate and would have crumbled or been lost.

These papyri, containing a large number of Greek philosophical texts, come from a single personal library, that of Philodemus, the Epicurean. Philodemus is identified as the author of 44 rolls. 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.[3]


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ (1986) IV. The Herculaneum Papyri, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 33, pp. 36–45
  3. ^ a b CISPE Il Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi
  4. ^ Digitization of Herculaneum Papyri Completed Insights 22/6 (2002) Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young U.
  5. ^ BYU Herculaneum Project Honored with Mommsen Prize Insights 30/1 (2010) Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young U.
  6. ^ EDUCE: Imaging the Herculaneum Scrolls (Video). Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments, U. Kentucky. 2011. 
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Jonathan Webb X-ray technique reads burnt Vesuvius scroll BBC News, Science & Environment, 20 January 2015
  10. ^ Frederic G. Kenyon, Palaeography of Greek papyri (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1899), p. 3.

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