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Scientists Revive Ancient Greek Papyri Burned at Mount Vesuvius

Greek Papyri Burned Now Revived
Ancient Greek Papyri Burned at Mount Vesuvius Now Revived / Public Domain

Scientists are reviving the ancient Greek Papyri that were burned in 79 AD following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

There are more than 1,800 papyri, sometimes referred to as the Herculaneum scrolls, with texts hidden on the back. These were found by European scientists in Herculaneum in the 18th century.

Deciphering them has, however, been difficult until now, as they were carbonized in the eruption. Yet, today, new technologies have finally made the impossible possible and aided in deciphering their content.


Herculaneum was founded by the Oscans in the 8th century BC and later became part of the Etruscan and Samnite dominions.

In ancient times, it was a resort often referred to as “the other Pompeii.”  The eruption of the volcano caused the death of many, such as Pliny the Elder—a classical Roman writer and natural philosopher—and the city was completely buried.

Herculaneum, a present Ercolano site, Compania, Italy. Credit: Andrea Schaffer, CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Its inhabitants, the Samnites, were one of the Italian peoples that allied with King Pyrrhus of Epirus during the Pyrrhic War.

After Pyrrhus left for Sicily, the Romans invaded Samnium, and its people were crushed at the Battle of the Cranita Hills. As they could not hold back the Roman soldiers on their own in the wake of the Samnite king’s defeat, they surrendered to Rome.

The city itself had been constructed according to the standards of Hippodamus of Miletus, a famous architect.

Under the Roman control, it soon became a famous seaside resort, often referred to as “the other Pompeii,” where some of Rome’s wealthiest citizens spent their summer vacations.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions

Only two early Christian marble sarcophagi from the 2nd and 4th centuries AD in the Basilica di Santa Maria a Pugliano provided evidence of habitation in Herculaneum before it was hit by two natural disasters.

The first occurred on February 5th in the year 62 AD, when the seaside city suffered heavy damage from violent earthquakes.

Restoration projects still ongoing at that time were cut short on August 24th of 79 AD when the second, the violent eruption of Vesuvius, completely buried the city beneath thick layers of hot, volcanic dust.

Furthermore, unlike neighboring Pompeii, which was submerged under pumice and fine ash, the citizens of Herculaneum died of severe thermal shock from a succession of superheated pyroclastic surges and lava flows.

Afterwards, the area was slowly re-populated, and, in 121 AD, the old coast road from Naples to Nocera was likely in place.

Reviving the papyri with the help of science

In the 18th century, archaeologists uncovered a remarkable library of burned scrolls that had been carbonized. They were the first Greek papyri found in archaeological excavations. Before this, the only Greek ones passed down for study came from the medieval era.

Initially, scientists attempted to unroll the papyri and, as a result of their hasty efforts, ruined them in their already fragile state. Yet recently, a group of researchers from Italy, France, Germany, and Russia collaborated on the papyri with advanced digital technology.

They then announced that “by using the ultrasound imaging technique in the short infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (1,000 to 2,500 nanometers), they were able to see “portions of Greek text hidden behind the PHerc. 1691/1021 papyrus.”

They were able to see the fragments by using high-tech, non-invasive imaging methods, and determined these were of ancient Greek texts hidden behind one of Herculaneum’s famous burned scrolls. Moreover, thanks to the new technique, the hidden text was even clearer than the one on the front, visible side, meaning that its lost history had successfully been revived.

Additionally, their work paved the way for appreciation of similar charred scrolls from the same or other collections, which will be of great help to scholars of papyrus, particularly those dedicated to reading such scrolls, restoring their philology and ancient philosophy to the world archive.

Preserving history

The excavations that unearthed these valuable artifacts took place at the Ercolano site in Campagni, Italy which, in 79 AD, also had its villa leveled and burned.

It was then rediscovered and explored by subterranean tunnels in the 1750s and 1760s, and partially exhumed in the 1990s and early 2000s.

What that work revealed was a unique library of papyri scrolls, colorful marble, mosaic floors, frescoed walls, and a large collection of bronze and marble statuary.

Helpful in reconstructing the social contexts of the papyri are not only the world heritage assets found at Ercolano but also the Getty Villa in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, California that recreated the Villa dei Papiri.

Getty Villa
Getty Villa. Credit: Bobak-Ha’Eri, June 8, 2007, CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Getty exhibition located there presents many of the most spectacular finds. In essence, it is a replica of the only ancient Greek-Roman library preserved in a small room of the Roman villa.

Nonetheless, the bulk of the 1,840 papyri are kept at the National Library of Naples and at the Institute of France in Paris. The most famous papyrus of the collection contains text from the “History of the Academy” (of Plato), which is part of a much larger work by the Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus.

While the authentic experience of the city’s past before the devastating volcanic eruption cannot be reconstructed, the ruins at the historical site of Ercolano in Italy are still beautiful to see. Likewise, the reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri in Los Angeles provides a general idea of Herculaneum’s ancient glory.


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