When the eruption of Mount Vesuvius swallowed up the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in A.D. 79, it not only froze an ancient civilization, it also preserved the only surviving library from antiquity.
But, when the library was discovered in 1752, the nearly 2,000 carbonized papyrus rolls found in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum were so badly burned they looked more like blocks of charcoal than precious manuscripts. While some texts from the philosophical library have been published, many papyri have yet to be unrolled or read.
A new KBYU Television documentary, Out of the Ashes: Recovering the Lost Library of Herculaneum, follows attempts over 250 years to unroll and decipher the papyri. It also describes modern efforts by Brigham Young University scholars to use multi-spectral imaging technology to read the blackened fragments.
The hour-long program will air on KBYU-TV on May 28 at 9 p.m. and June 1 at 8 p.m. It will also air on BYU-TV on the following dates: May 7 at 3 p.m., May 17 at 10 p.m., May 19 at 9 p.m. and May 29 at 9 a.m.
The production features international experts on the papyri including four BYU scholars: Roger Macfarlane of the Department of Classics; Steve Booras and Dan Oswald of The Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts; and Doug Chabries of the College of Engineering and Technology. Other prominent scholars who were interviewed for the program represent the University of Naples, Oxford, UCLA, Michigan, Texas A&M, Baylor, the Getty Research Institute and the British School of Rome.
In 1999, BYU scholars accepted an invitation from the National Library in Naples, Italy, to test multi-spectral imaging technology - originally developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory - on the burned papyri. When they first saw the Herculaneum papyri, the team was discouraged by the poor condition of the fragments.
"This is probably the worst-case scenario you can imagine, in terms of the condition of the manuscripts," says Booras, imaging project manager. "They are very difficult to read, very difficult to handle."
But when the BYU team began tests on the papyri, Booras says the results were immediate and dramatic. In some cases, they were able to reveal text from fragments that were thought to be blank.
"You have the application of space-age technology to texts that have not been available for 2,000 years," says Roger T. Macfarlane, principal investigator on the Herculaneum papyri project. "All of a sudden there is new access to new texts."
Multi-spectral imaging is based on reflectivity, not color, making it possible to differentiate the black ink from the dark surface of the carbonized scroll. BYU researchers have previously used the technologies to study other damaged and burned texts, including burned manuscripts from a church in Petra, Jordan.
Working with colleagues at the National Library in Naples, Italy, Steve and Susan Booras spent more than a year in Naples imaging more than 10,000 scroll fragments, which are now being compiled into a digital library. The digital library will not only facilitate study of the scrolls outside of Naples, it will also document the current condition of the rapidly deteriorating papyri.
"No one has really come up with a particularly good way of conserving the Herculaneum papyri, because anything you do to them alters them. And so the modern approach to conservation is to try to make as good an image of an object as possible, and these images are so far the best that we've been able to get," says UCLA professor David Blank.
"No matter what happens to the originals, we'll be able to now have digital images that will survive indefinitely," says Oswald, former executive director of The Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.
Out of the Ashes traces the history of the Herculaneum papyri from the time of the 79 A.D. eruption, to their discovery in 1752, to modern developments that impact their study. In the 21st century, scholars continue to debate the future of the original Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum where the scrolls were all found. The site was never fully excavated and recent discoveries have led many scholars to believe that other scrolls - and perhaps another entire library - may still be buried there. The excavation is currently idled, although the site was recently opened to tourists for the first time.
The documentary also features an interview with the foremost scholar on the Herculaneum papyri, Marcello Gigante, who invited the BYU team to Naples in 1999. Gigante directed the international effort to read and publish the papyri from 1969 until his death in 2001. Before his death, he was able to see the first dramatic results of the imaging work.
"I think that without doubt the new photographic proceeding is an important contribution to the progress of our papyri," he said, noting that many publications would need to be revised to incorporate the new images.
Ironically, the destructive force of the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in the first century preserved the papyri; the library probably would have deteriorated if it hadn't been carbonized and sealed under volcanic material.
"I am a friend of Vesuvius," says Gigante, "because Vesuvius with the eruption of 79 A.D. has conserved these papyri."
The Out of the Ashes production team included Executive Producer Giovanni Tata, Content Specialist Roger Macfarlane, Producer/Writer/Director Julie Walker, Director of Photography Brian Wilcox, Editor Christopher Rawson and Music Composer Sam Cardon.
Out of the Ashes will be distributed to PBS stations nationwide as part of the American Public Television fall 2003 schedule. The program is available for purchase on VHS tape through the BYU Creative Works office at creativeworks.byu.edu or by calling 1-800-962-8061. A DVD version of the program will also be available soon. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org