Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Virtual unrolling of a papyrus scroll

The House of Papyri is a library of burned Roman scrolls of epicurean philosophy, found in a palace at Herculaneum, orginally thought to be charcoal, eventually unrolled, and found to contain new quotes from poets as far back as Sappho. A new show on this subject just aired on PBS, funded by BYU.

The show highlights the use of UV to reveal ink, which is otherwise invisible, on the charred pieces of papyri. But the text from these papyri are all impossibly discontinuous, wih more than half of the material missing, because of the damage during unscrolling. The stuff just turns to dust under any stress. This makes normal reading impossible, in the sense of sitting down with a coffee & a cat on a comfy chair and reading your fave philosopher. The epicureans would be furious.

I wonder why conservators unscroll them ... Isn't there some high-resolution CAT scanner that could make a model of a unscrolled roll? The model could be "virtually unrolled", with no text lost. There are many scrolls unopened still. Anyway, I googled CAT scanner & papyri, and only found a thread about reading papyri after the ink has disappeared, through depression scanning (which is interesting). But it looks like no one is trying to "virtually unroll" these priceless Herculaneum scrolls. Of which there might be thousands more buried at the site.

Since the ink & the carbonized paper react differently to different frequencies of light, it must react differently to x-rays. If one can adjust the spectral absorption of a CAT scanner (can one?) then one could get the model of floating letters in a single session. I'm pretty sure there must be someone with this kind of equipment already ... just can't quite find it.

Had to tell someone this idea -- nerdy ebullience can't be capped. I'll get back to work.