Tech Opens Rolled Scrolls

Happy Autumnal Equinox, or the First Day of Fall. Autumn usually an exciting time -- football, environment changing (most places; not here in San Diego so much), a shift in seasons. May your lives shift favorably with them!

There was an interesting article in The New York Times today about the application of a recently developed technology that scans and virtually “unrolls” ancient parchments that have until now been too old and brittle to unravel.

The ability to recover ancient texts via tech was enabled via software programs created at the University of Kentucky, with the ultimate purpose of unraveling the huge amount of carbonized scrolls that were “preserved” (if unreadable) from a library near the catastrophic Pompeii eruption in 79 A.D. -- they are hypothesized to contain great, lost literature and possibly obscure knowledge and history.

For the past 13 years, University of Kentucky scientists and technologists worked on ways to read the text inside an ancient scroll. Machines similar to CT scans “can pick out blobs of ink inside a charred scroll, but the jumble of letters is unreadable unless each letter can be assigned to the surface on which it is written. The university’s  major breakthough was realizing “the writing surface of the scroll had first to be reconstructed and the letters then stuck back to it,” the article says

As the Times writes, one computer scientist at the university, W. Brent Seales:

“...has developed a method, called virtual unwrapping, to model the surface of an ancient scroll in the form of a mesh of tiny triangles. Each triangle can be resized by the computer until the virtual surface makes the best fit to the internal structure of the scroll, as revealed by the scanning method. The blobs of ink are assigned to their right place on the structure, and the computer then unfolds the whole 3-D structure into a 2-D sheet.”

Soon, too, we’ll all be able to do this. The suite of software programs, called Volume Cartography, will become open source when the university’s current government grant ends.

What was the new technology used for, and what did it reveal? The tech was tested on a small segment of a scroll found among the various Dead Sea Scrolls. Turns out it was the oldest version yet found of the first two chapters of the Old Testament book Leviticus.

But the ultimately bigger development from this successful implementation of new tech to read old content would be the revelation of the multitude of carbonized scrolls from “The Herculaneum,” a large library on the outskirts of Pompeii, part of a sprawling estate owned  by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso.

Much of the grounds are still unexcavated, and its library could contain long-lost works of Latin and Greek literature and history. That would be incredible.

On an odder note, while reading this story The New York Times also suggested another story to me, about what appeared to be sort of a Japanese “Uber for Buddhist Priests.” A curio, but worth a glance.