For Your Long Weekend Read: Deciphering the Library of Herculaneum

Here’s what may be the mother of all long-term data storage problems.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it sealed the extensive library of a wealthy Roman under many feet of ash and earth. Scrolls that wouldn’t have otherwise survived two thousand years were preserved intact and dug up in the 1750s. Since then, they’ve pinballed around Europe, exchanged as gifts between kings and emperors and been locked away in rarefied institutions. They might contain lost works by some of the superstars of antiquity, like Sappho and Aristotle.

Trouble is, nobody can read them because they are lumps of blackened carbon that crumble to dust when you try to unroll them. A few have been deciphered but the majority remain rolled up.

Now, a group of scholars and physicists are trying to use equipment capable of peering into the scrolls without unrolling them, detecting details at the molecular level. A grain of sand left by a reader in between two layers, the faint raising from page-level of dried ink, or the groove of a stylus are all detectable.

Even though this piece came out in The New Yorker three years ago, it’s news to me. It’s the kind of wonder that doesn’t often make it to the headlines, but should.

3 comments

  1. The other unsung wonder from Pompeii is that the demonyms had nearly perfect teeth from the combination of a low sugar, Mediterranean diet and the abundant flourine in water the water, from Mount Vesuvius, which ultimately did them in.

  2. It’s amazing the scrolls were preserved intact,exchanged as gifts between kings and and queens. Even though some were lumps crumpled to dust , yet were treasured and not added to the pile of lost precious history.

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