Studying Ancient Papyri with Space-Age Technology

Professor Roger Macfarlane gave his final lecture in The Leonardo Museum’s series on recent advancements made in studying the ancient city of Pompeii. 

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (April 24, 2020)—BYU’s Professor Roger Macfarlane connected with a virtual audience to present his lecture “Out of the Ashes: Recovering Ancient Texts with Space Age Technology,” which focused on measures taken to carefully open and decipher ancient papyri found in the well-preserved wreckage of Pompeii and the nearby city of Herculaneum.  

A large number of carbonized papyrus scrolls have been discovered in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the last few hundred years, Macfarlane reported, but had remained unopened and illegible to curious scholars. As a part of the BYU Herculaneum Papyrus Project, space age technology was introduced to solve the seemingly impossible problem. 

Macfarlane explained that due to the unique and powerful nature of Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption in AD 79 the great quantity of ash propelled into the air collapsed in on itself and covered the nearby areas in a fatally hot surge of volcanic material. However, the thick wave of pyroclastic material that killed many people actually preserved the cities’ collections of papyri—they were “carbonized by the heat of the eruption and sort of frozen in time and kept from decay,” Macfarlane described.  

These carbonized scrolls, Macfarlane demonstrated using images, must be strategically cut open to ensure that the two-column format of the ancient writing remains in the correct order. However, once opened, the papyri were unreadable because the black ink used to write was indistinguishable from the blackened, carbonized parchment. Members of the BYU group discovered that employing multispectral imaging, a reflectivity-based technique, was the solution to this obstacle.  

In a video Macfarlane showed to help explain the process, a fellow professor clarified, “So you’ve got black ink on black papyri, but each one of those have different reflective characteristics. While the eye sees black ink on black papyrus, multispectral imaging is based on reflectivity. Because the ink and the papyrus reflect light differently, they can be easily distinguished from each other, especially in the infrared spectrum.” 

Scholar Richard Janko praised the BYU group’s efforts, stating that “The BYU images restore full legibility to papyri so black that the human eye can discern no ink whatever,” and predicting that “All future study of the Herculaneum papyri will gain enormously from this wonderful advance.” 

Thanks to the use of this new technology, Macfarlane and his colleagues are learning new things about the ancient language, culture, and more. They continue to look into new methods that will make the process even easier, and Macfarlane believes that they’re “not far away from the next advance with the Herculaneum papyri.” 

—Tori Hamilton (Editing & Publishing, ‘20)