Lost and Found

Lost and Found

Here‘s an interesting story on the use of new technology to recover new text from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.

The Villa appears to have been the home of a philosopher in the Southern Italian city on the Bay of Naples. On August 24, 79 AD, the dormant Mt. Vesuvius came to life, destroying most of the surrounding cities (including Pompeii).

Herculaneum was rediscovered in the mid-1700s, and excavations have continued periodically since then. When the Villa was first discovered, the excavators kept coming across charred, cylindrical objects, about a foot long. Like this:

On the prowl for gold and silver, they missed the true treasures they had found. Some of them were even burned for fuel!

Later, the cylinders were recognized as papyrus scrolls, and the great number of them revealed the building to have been a library.

Since that time, many efforts have been made to read this material. Elaborate mechanical devices were constructed to slowly, steadily unroll the scrolls. The results were mixed at best. Pages often stuck together, or simply crumbled to pieces. And the unrolled page was often unreadable. Worse, the text quickly disappeared upon exposure to air, so scholars had to write down what they could as each new line emerged. There were some successes, but the process was invasive and of limited value.

The new technology reported above is revolutionary. I don’t pretend to understand the details, but, basically, when an X-ray passes through an object, changes in material density cause a shift in the phase of the wave. This can be measured quite precisely, and, through a lot of data processing, you can ultimately determine exactly where there is ink residue on the surface of the papyrus. So far, they have managed to identify a few individual letters. But everyone expects further improvements as they calibrate the device. In the near future, we’ll be able to read many of these scrolls without having to unroll them. Since there are thousands of these scrolls on site–with more likely to be found in still-unexcavated portions of the villa–we have good reason to expect the recovery of many lost Greek texts!

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the ancient owner of our library had very narrow philosophical interests. Most of the texts recovered so far are by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. (The library might even represent his personal literary remains.) And not only is Epicureanism one of the less exciting ancient schools of thought, Philodemus is one of the less interesting of Epicurean thinkers. If only this could’ve been the library of, say, a later Aristotelian!

Anyway, I’ve always been very interested in the transmission (and failure of transmission) of ancient texts. And, related to that, I’m fascinated by our attempts to recover some of this lost legacy. Along with the new X-ray technology, we also have the ancient Egyptian garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus, which has been a major source for lost works. (They find tiny bits of shredded paper, preserved under the sand in the desert heat, and now they use computers to reassemble the original pages, like the pieces of a puzzle.) And occasionally we still stumble upon palimpsests: books containing pages from older books, whose original ink was scrubbed off to be re-used by new scribes. The residue of the old ink can sometimes still be seen–especially with recent multi-spectral scanning technology. So, we can dare to dream.

This had me thinking: what would be at the top of my lost-work wishlist? (If you want to play along, there’s a handy list here.)

So, after a little thought, here’s my top 5:

  1. The published writings of Aristotle. (Cicero referred to the prose of Aristotle as a “river of gold”. The private notes that survived are nothing of the sort.)
  2. The complete book of Zeno’s paradoxes. (We rely mostly on the loose–and somewhat antagonistic–summaries of Aristotle, plus some summaries by Simplicius written a thousand years later! But a part of me worries that the originals might be a let down. Maybe Aristotle’s reconstruction is just more interesting that the original.)
  3. The lost tragedies of Sophocles. (We have just seven of the hundreds we know about. While we’re at it, throw in some lost Aeschylus too! You can keep the Euripides.)
  4. The work by Heraclitus, possibly called On Nature. This was supposedly the only book he wrote, and it was still available as late as the 3rd Century AD, but all we have are some unordered fragments.)
  5. The work of Leucippus and Democritus. (Atomism is probably the school Aristotle viewed as his most serious philosophical opponent–other than the Platonists, who were really more like friendly rivals. And, aside from a few early fragments, all we have for Atomism are the much later versions of Lucretius, etc. I’d love to see the original.)

I’ll close with a few final reflections on my list:

  • Number five is always hard. I might be willing to swap Anaxagoras for the Atomists.
  • Sappho should probably be on it, given her reputation in the ancient world, but it’s my list and I wouldn’t have the Greek to appreciate it.
  • There should probably be a historian here too, but nothing on the Wikipedia list grabbed me.
  • Some of the listed works probably never existed. For example, Pythagoras could be as much mythical figure as real person, and there’s certainly no reliable evidence that he wrote a book.
  • Finally, it’s surprising–and fortunate!–that we have pretty much everything Plato wrote. Certainly enough to keep Josh busy for a while
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2 Responses to Lost and Found

  1. Josh says:

    Interesting stuff! I sometimes think we could re-brand this blog as “the amateur classicist” or something like that.

    Lost texts we’d like to have were a frequent topic in our Thucydides seminar – one more hypothetical “lost text” is the rest of Thucydides’ history (if there ever was one). The text ends abruptly and we know from earlier in the text that he was alive through the end of the war, yet it the history ends a few years before then.

    So I couldn’t quite tell from your post but are there texts at Herculaneum that have already been lost because of failed attempts to unravel them?

  2. Nates says:

    Ha, Amateur Classicist does sound about right. I take my task of unveiling my ignorance seriously!

    Yes, all of the early attempts at opening scrolls were damaging in some way. In the worst cases, the scrolls fell apart during the attempt. In the best cases, some text was recovered, but the ink soon disappeared once exposed to air–where this means that we have less to work with using new technologies.

    But the good news is that there are still plenty of unopened scrolls left to examine. And the even better news is that much of the building remains unexcavated. We have strong evidence of more rooms below. (The villa was built in steps on a hillside overlooking the coast.) So, imagine if one of these rooms contained a more general library, with literature and works from other philosophical schools! Probably not very likely, but one can hope…

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