The Herculaneum Papyri (Part II)

Piaggio constructed a machine to unroll the papyri. He stuck thin animal membranes to the back of each piece (first he tried onion membranes) and attached strings to these, wound around a bar, from which the roll would hang. Its weight helped to pull it down. He carefully cut off pieces as they were unrolled and began transcribing them. Although effective, this was an extremely time-consuming process. According to one source, (see OHP, 308) a year’s work would only complete about half a roll.

The process of reading the papyri has become much easier in the last couple of decades with the advent of imaging technology. Multispectral imaging in particular has facilitated incredible advances in reading the charred texts by its ability to distinguish between the black letters and the black background surface. Pieces of the same roll that were once separated are being joined back together.

Possible developments for the future include using tomography, imaging by sections, (used, for example, to see inside a human body) in virtually unrolling the texts.

Work also continues on the publication of the various texts from the Herculaneum papyri. The director of this work is Marcello Gigante, whose journal Cronache Ercolanesi records their progress.

If you find this research interesting, check out the website for the archeological sites in the bay of Naples,

See Carol C. Mattusch’s bibliography for Herculaneum,

Also see David Sider, “The Special Case of Herculaneum,” in Roger S. Bagnall, ed. Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, pp. 303-319

And Sider, The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, 2005

On the technology side, check out this article about multispectral scanning at Oxford:

OHP = Oxford Handbook of Papyrology


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