2007-06-09 / News

Herculaneum Group Continues Quest To Uncover Ancient History

By Eric Fish

Attending the Mackinac Island Conference on the Herculaneum Papyri at Grand Hotel are (from left) Holger Essler, L. Michael White, John Fitzgerald, Michael Wigodsky, Richard Janko, David Armstrong, Jacob Mackey, Kirk Sanders, Elizabeth Asmis, Jeff Fish, David Konstan, Voula Tsouna, Ben Henry, and David Sedley. Attending the Mackinac Island Conference on the Herculaneum Papyri at Grand Hotel are (from left) Holger Essler, L. Michael White, John Fitzgerald, Michael Wigodsky, Richard Janko, David Armstrong, Jacob Mackey, Kirk Sanders, Elizabeth Asmis, Jeff Fish, David Konstan, Voula Tsouna, Ben Henry, and David Sedley. Mackinac Island has always been a place known for its rich history, but at a conference at Grand Hotel from Saturday, June 2, to Wednesday, June 6, the Island welcomed in a team of classicists to continue efforts in uncovering an even greater history, papyrus texts from the ancient Greek and Roman world.

A 1752 excavation found numerous Herculaneum scrolls buried from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, triggered a lava flow to the Herculaneum area and buried the nearby town of Pompeii in a cloud of ash.

The excavation of Herculaneum led to the discovery of the villa of Calpurnius Piso, who was the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Inside the villa, archaeologists uncovered what is believed to be the only surviving library from the ancient world. The scrolls contain the writings of Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, who served as a teacher and spiritual advisor to famed poets Virgil and Horace.

"The connections are pretty powerful," said Dr. Michael White, a professor of classics and early Christianity at the University of Texas. "This library and the villa in which it was housed then start to show us a lot of the interconnections of those very, very powerful circles of Rome."

The Grand Hotel conference brought 14 classicist participants from the Friends of Herculaneum Society, an official organization at Oxford, to discuss the ancient scrolls. The conference was dubbed as more of a working conference, where classicists present their research papers and are challenged by their peers.

The Reverend Ron and Annakay Smith, residents of Mackinac Island's East Bluff and Austin, Texas, and University of Texas Classics Department contributors, spearheaded the event by extending the invitation to the classicists last summer in hopes of organizing a conference.

It is believed that about 1,800 books were originally recovered in the excavation, but many were destroyed owing to lack of knowledge about conserving them and confusion about what they were.

"They found these lumps of carbonized matter and had no idea what they were and some of them were burned for heat," said Dr. Ben Henry, an Oxford specialist in Greek and professor at the University of Texas. "They went right past it first, and people were destroying them."

Today, an estimated 600 books remain for decoding. The interpreted texts, so far, have been philosophical, for the most part, but have also covered music and poetry and a variety of more specialized topics.

Interpretation of the scrolls has several challenges. Although the lava from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius embedded and somewhat preserved the texts, it also burned them. The scrolls bear resemblance to charred logs and must go through a careful process of unrolling. Following that, the classicists have to fill in the missing letters and words that were burned out of the scrolls from the lava. To make their jobs even more difficult, there were no spaces between words and no capital letters to begin sentences in the ancient Greek world.

"It's kind of like a crossword puzzle," Dr. White said. "You've got part of the letters in a word and no clues, or very few contextual clues, of what's going on in the text. And you're filling in the letters just based on a variety of techniques."

Several decoding techniques have arisen in the last decade. Innovations like Multispectral Imaging (MSI) enable the classicists to read the original ink on the texts beneath the carbonization. MSI was originally developed by NASA with hopes of studying the surface of distant planets.

"That's what's made this all possible," Dr. Henry said.

In addition to MSI, enhancements in computer technology also allow for the viewing of the scrolls outside of their excavation points, so now, conferees at places like Grand Hotel can view the scrolls on a large screen while talking about them.

"The new imaging technique has only been done in the last five years and, in fact, we're even getting to a new generation of that technology," Dr. White said. "Literally, until five years ago, you either had to go to Oxford or to Naples to work on them."

Dr. White holds the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair at the University of Texas, endowed in honor of Rev. Smith, and has been working to piece the scrolls back together. Broken in half, the scrolls came off the roll in sheets and were filed out of order. Finding clues to the text that will put the sheets back in order on the scroll is difficult, and the task is far from complete.

The process of decoding the scrolls is incredibly time consuming, which has stalled interest in the text from the time they were discovered in the 1750s until now.

"It's been so piecemeal in the ability to do this, so specialized, that it has limited the circle of participants," said Dr. John Fitzgerald, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Miami.

So far, findings in the texts depict connections in strong views on friendship, philosophy on emotion and death, and even a connection to the writing of St. Paul in the New Testament.

"We find in the New Testament, St. Paul using exactly the same terminology," Dr. White said. "You study this material all for its own purpose, all for its own sake for learning the Roman world, but there are then side benefits that you get because we now read the New Testament in a new light, because we realize Paul is using the same vocabulary and the same model of community and friendship when he's writing his letters."

The excavation site at Herculaneum is currently suspended, but optimism surrounds the possible uncovering of more texts from the ancient library upon resumption. A larger conference will be held next summer in Naples, Italy, to discuss more findings.

At the conclusion of the Friends of Herculaneum conference, several of the classicists planned on touring and enjoying Mackinac Island for a few days before departing.

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