Sunday, November 22, 2009

Virtual Unrolling

I started this blog because of a single idea. But, I'm very happy to say, someone else published the idea before me, and actually did something about it. The right thing.

In 2005, I saw a preview for a PBS documentary touting new technology used in reading the Papyri at Herculaneum -- I'd hoped it would show some non-invasive technologies. But, it turned out, those researchers, though using multispectral imaging to better see inks, were still likely to destroy the integrity of remaining ancient scrolls, carbonized by the eruption of Vesuvius, using specific restoration techniques that had proven inadequate for centuries. Full texts would continue to be reduced to mere fragments.

As you can see from my 2005 post, I thought I'd coined a new phrase: "virtual unrolling" (or its inflection "virtually unroll") ... Luckily, for the literature of the ancient world, W. Brent Seales had already used the phrase, in a 2004 paper at the 4th ACM/IEEE-CS joint conference on Digital libraries, already far along on his quest to do exactly what I described a year later.

Now, I think any computer programmer with graphic, modeling or other experience in computational geometry would have similar thoughts if they look at this Herculaneum scroll unroller at the National Archeological Museum in Napoli (well worth the visit: an extraordinarily collection from the ancient world). It just makes you wonder: "could we do that virtually?"

But by 2004, Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, was already doing projects a geek archaeologist could only dream about: for example, going to Venezia to 3D surface scan the oldest complete manuscript of Homer (here's a lovely, romantic mini-documentary, the Wired article, and a dreamy online browser for the Venetus Manuscript).

Right now, Seales' team is right in the middle of decoding and modeling their first Herculaneum papyrus scroll (here's a video of the high-res CT scan). The blog is a good place to keep track of developments with the EDUCE project, but they've put together a very nice documentary about the research so far.

So, what is on these scrolls?

We don't know, which is quite exciting!

It's a library, apparently selected by an Epicurean philosopher and poet, Philodemus. I'm very fond of Epicureans, the gentle, radical idealists of the ancient world, so I have high hopes for the quality of scrolls there. Works of Epicurus himself have been found among these scrolls: unfortunately fragmented by the old process. But with hundreds of scrolls still to be virtually unrolled, and perhaps more buried still, we could in the future find lost works -- Aristotle's dialogues? The lost plays of Sophocles? -- in their complete ancient form, thanks to the persistent efforts of these Greek-loving geeks.