Herculaneum Scrolls Unlocked

Key to 2,000-year-old scrolls discovered

Herculaneum Scrolls

A Herculaneum scroll burnt in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
Courtesy of The Digital Restoration Initiative, The University of Kentucky.

The 2,000-year-old Herculaneum Scrolls make up one of the largest extant libraries from antiquity, whose importance might well rival that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But for over a hundred years, they were almost completely unreadable, having been turned into little more than ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. Now, in what may be one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in decades, the Herculaneum Scrolls have been unlocked.

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Reading the Herculaneum Scrolls

Uncovered in the 18th century in the ruins of a Roman villa in the ancient town of Herculaneum, the scrolls were heavily damaged during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, making it practically impossible to unroll them without causing further harm. The few that could be unrolled largely contained works of philosophy, some of which were previously unknown. Some scholars hope that the yet-unopened scrolls could reveal more unknown works, and possibly even hints about early Christianity.

Herculaneum Scroll

A physically unrolled Herculaneum scroll. Courtesy of Vesuvius Challenge.

Launching the Vesuvius Challenge in 2023, a group of scholars and investors offered a staggering 1 million dollar’s worth of prizes, including a $700,000 grand prize, to any group that could make significant headway in reading the Herculaneum Scrolls. The contest aimed not to physically unravel the scrolls, however, but to train computers to detect faint traces of ink on X-ray images of the scrolls using a particle accelerator. At the launch of the challenge, the Vesuvius team estimated there was less than a 30 percent chance anyone would win the grand prize, which required the winner to detect at least 15 columns of text. To their amazement, one team managed to detect not just 15 columns, but 26—more than 2,000 characters. The winning team included three college students from Nebraska, Egypt, and Switzerland, all of whom had won earlier prizes and then teamed up to compete for the grand prize.

Herculaneum Scroll

A reconstructed column of the Herculaneum scroll that was read. Courtesy of Vesuvius Challenge.

So, what does the scroll say? According to papyrologists, who are now working on a full translation, “the general subject of the text is pleasure, which, properly understood, is the highest good in Epicurean philosophy.” A previously unknown work, it was likely written by the philosopher Philodemus, the teacher of Virgil, who is thought to have been the villa’s philosopher-in-residence.

One line of the scroll reads, “As too in the case of food, we do not right away believe things that are scarce to be absolutely more pleasant than those which are abundant.” Another reads, “For we do [not] refrain from questioning some things, but understanding/remembering others. And may it be evident to us to say true things, as they might have often appeared evident!” The text may belong to Philodemus’s four-part treatise on music, which is currently only known from copies of its fourth book.

But what could the other, yet-to-be-read Herculaneum Scrolls contain? According to the team: “An Aristotle dialog, a lost history of Livy, a lost Homeric epic work, a poem from Sappho—who knows what treasures are hidden in these lumps of ash. And there is the hope of a much bigger library still in the ground since two levels of the villa remain unexcavated.” The more than 1,000 scrolls that have already been uncovered at the Herculaneum villa all come from a small study. Scholars suspect that further excavations could reveal the villa’s main library, which could contain tens of thousands of additional scrolls.

scanning the scroll

The University of Kentucky team scanning the scroll in the particle accelerator. Courtesy of Vesuvius Challenge.

While the Vesuvius Challenge’s grand prize has been won, the team is not done. Seeking additional investors, they hope to launch more challenges, especially to improve the process of turning the X-ray images of the scrolls into unrolled and auto-segmented portions that can be deciphered. Currently, the process of virtually unraveling and segmenting the scrolls costs over $100 a square centimeter. At this rate, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to process just the scrolls that are already known. By creating an automated method of segmentation, this cost could be drastically reduced. In addition, the team hopes to raise money and the political capital to relaunch excavations at the villa.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Herculaneum Scrolls Reveal New Secrets

The Race to Read the Herculaneum Scrolls

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Climbing Vesuvius

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Christianity: Part One

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Christianity: Part Two

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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