Hidden Library: How Science Is Virtually Unwrapping the Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum

University of Kentucky/Brent Seales
University of Kentucky/Brent Seales

Brent Seales called them Fat Bastard and Banana Boy. They were two charred, highly fragile relics that had survived the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption of 79 CE, which doused residents of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum in a searing blast of destructive gas and volcanic matter. Herculaneum was buried under 80 feet of ash that eventually became solid rock.

Entombed for centuries, the city was rediscovered in the mid-1700s. Incredibly, the library of Herculaneum (known as the Villa dei Papiri) was still filled with over 1800 scrolls, solidified into dark husks. The words inside—religious text, scientific observation, poetry—could provide unprecedented insight into human history. Yet unraveling them has proved difficult. The papyri are so damaged and rigid from lack of moisture that they suffer from a kind of archaeological rigor mortis. And unlike the paralysis that seizes the body upon death, this condition is permanent. Delicate attempts to open the scrolls by hand have been destructive. For a long time, it seemed as if the secrets of the texts would remain locked away for good.

But as Seales stared at the two hardened masses in front of him in 2009, he didn’t share that pessimism. A professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky, he believed that the manual unwrapping that had long failed could be replaced by virtual unwrapping—the digital opening of the texts using computer tomography (CT) scanning and software to penetrate inside the rolled-up scrolls, revealing layers once thought invisible to the eye.

“It’s the only library from antiquity that we have,” Seales tells Mental Floss. “All the knowledge that seems lost, your imagination can run wild.”

 
 

Seales first grew curious about the role of digital manipulation in 1995, when he was invited to assist the British Library in London in scanning and preserving Beowulf. Its 1000-year-old pages had been damaged by fire and warped by the passage of time, imperfections that 2D scans left intact. The use of special software and a 3D visualization, Seales realized, could make it possible to actually flatten the pages and restore smeared copy.

The idea of capturing and manipulating visual data came from Seales's experience in medical imaging, where CT scans can peer inside the body in a noninvasive manner. What if, Seales wondered, the same principle could be applied to the study of fragile documents? What if a relic could be examined in the way a radiologist can visualize, say, the lungs? "That was the eureka moment," he says.

A digital CT scan of a damaged scroll that is being reconstructed
A CT scan of a damaged scroll, with layers visible (L). The red outline is digitally reconstructed in a process called "segmentation" (R).

Seales believed he could use these diagnostic tools to virtually rebuild manuscripts, and returned to the British Library in 2000 to examine other warped documents. After taking images using a prototype of a machine that achieved 3D scans without physical contact, he wrote software that smoothed out the buckled and bunched pages. He likens it to a computer mimicking the tug of gravity, or reversing the direction of a billowing flag. The technique worked—he was able to achieve realistic, flat versions of centuries-old damaged pages.

But Seales believed he could set his ambitions higher: to not only virtually repair a damaged page, but peer inside the Herculaneum scrolls without the risk of causing additional harm. Like many scholars before him, the allure of Herculaneum's vast repository of knowledge had captured his curiosity.

However, the idea of subjecting the scrolls to even minimal handling was something few would consider. Only the Institut de France—one of four major holders of the scrolls—would entertain the idea, and it took four long years to convince them of the possibilities. In 2009, they finally granted permission to Seales's team to scan two Herculaneum scrolls they had in their possession. Officially, the scrolls were categorized as P.Herc.Paris 3 and P.Herc.Paris 4. Seales nicknamed them Fat Bastard and Banana Boy.

The easiest way to imagine the first part of his process is to visualize a sheet of dough that is covered with small red letters and then rolled up. Seen from its edges, the wrap displays its layers and colored pieces, though no observer could possibly identify sentences from that perspective. By slicing the roll into cross-sections as small as 14 microns thick (human hairs are around 75 microns) in a process known as volumetric scanning, Seales can then use geometric "mesh" to reassemble them into a readable surface, depicting the paper so it appears to be as flat as the day it was first written on.

In 2009, the technique allowed Seales to peer inside a closed Herculaneum scroll for the first time, revealing a fibrous labyrinth of data that initially looked like coiled string.

“We saw this amazing structure,” Seales says. But that's where things went wrong.

Seales had believed that trace metals commonly found in the ink of the period could be isolated by the imaging, separating them from the page once the scroll was unraveled and rendering the script legible. But so little of the metals were present that it didn't allow him to identify letters. Nor could Seales distinguish the carbon in the papyrus from the carbon in the ink, which rendered them indistinguishable from one another. The software also wasn't prepared to process the terabytes of data from the scan. While he technically had been able to look inside the scrolls, there was no functional way to determine what he was seeing.

Over the next several years, “Seales Stymied” became something of a headline in academic circles. That ignored the larger point: Seales had proven it was possible to retrieve images from inside the Herculaneum scrolls. It was now a matter of how best to visualize and process it.

 
 

The Herculaneum scans pushed Seales and his team to renovate their software, an act made easier by Seales’s sabbatical work as a visiting scientist at Google’s Cultural Institute in 2012 and 2013. “The interns helped me with the algorithms,” he says, which was a major perk of working for one of the world’s most concentrated and talented assembly of programmers.

His software was vastly improved by the time Seales was approached in 2014 by Pnina Shor, the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Shor had heard of Seales’s work and wanted to know if he could take a look at some CT scan data she had gathered from a 3-inch stick of parchment found in En-Gedi, Israel, in 1970. There was probably ink, but it was obscured by the folds and twists of the parchment.

A CT scan of the En-Gedi scroll, along with a virtual example of how it might look unfolded
The En-Gedi scroll's layers are tightly wound (L). Special software is able to isolate one layer to look for text (R).

Seales looked at the scans and applied his process for virtual unwrapping. He used a step he called "texturing," which identifies density differences and other data on the paper that indicate where ink has been applied and assigns a value to that point. Logging the information on individual voxels—the 3D equivalent of pixels—he's able to reassemble them so they appear as a familiar letter shape. The data is then flattened so it resembles an unrolled sheet.

The En-Gedi scroll was made from animal skin, which Seales says is better for contrast against the ink than papyrus, and also benefited from resolution that was twice as good as what he used in 2009. He sent his findings to Shore in 2015; she wrote him back an email humming with excitement. Seales didn’t know what he had uncovered—he doesn’t read Hebrew—but Shor did: It was the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, the earliest example of Bible text after the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

“When we saw the results we almost fainted,” Shor told reporters. “We had been certain it was just a shot in the dark.”

The fully unwrapped En-Gedi scroll with writing visible
The fully unwrapped En-Gedi scroll revealed writing that had not been seen in centuries.

Shor’s willingness to embrace new technology helped reveal text locked away for centuries. Conservators are notoriously cautious when it comes to handling such delicate relics—even though Seales never touches one personally, since curators are responsible for getting scrolls in and out of CT scanners. Only recently has Seales been able have more productive conversations at the Officina dei Papiri at the National Library of Naples in Italy, where the bulk of the Herculaneum scrolls are kept, and the University of Oxford. (The Institut de France and the British Library also hold Herculaneum scrolls.)

He remains optimistic that the method used for the En-Gedi material will work for the Herculaneum collection. At a conference this past March, he and members of his team presented new findings showing success in determining the column structure of one text (17 characters per line), as well as reading specific letters—and even entire names. Part of the breakthrough comes from high-powered x-ray beams like the one housed at Diamond Light Source in the UK, which are proving potent enough to isolate the trace amounts of lead in the ink.

 
 

The progress can seem glacial, but Seales has nonetheless gone from imaging a wrapped papyrus to isolating a clearly defined letter. Next, he hopes, will come sentences, possibly isolated by artificial intelligence software he's currently writing.

But even with permission, Seales’s pursuit of a viewable Herculaneum fragment is still dependent on funding. “I sometimes cringe when I see people say, ‘Seales has been working on this for two decades, unable to figure out the problem,’” he says. “Funding comes and goes.” Commercial applications for his software and methodology—like bone scanning or even virtual colonoscopy—could one day underwrite the academic work.

With access, cooperation, and a little luck, he remains optimistic we’ll eventually be able to uncover the knowledge long buried by Mount Vesuvius—time capsules that are slowly revealing their secrets, one micron at a time.

All images courtesy of University of Kentucky/Brent Seales.

The Weird, Disturbing World of Snail Sex

iStock
iStock

Romance is rare in the animal kingdom. Instead of wooing their partners before copulating, male ducks force themselves onto females, depositing genetic material with spiky, corkscrew penises. Then, there's tardigrade sex, which is less violent but not exactly heartwarming. Females lay eggs into a husk of dead skin. The male then ejaculates onto the eggs while stroking the female, and the whole process can take up to an hour.

But you can't talk about disturbing mating rituals in nature without mentioning snails. If you're unfamiliar with snail sexuality, you may assume that snail sex falls on the vanilla side: The mollusks, after all, are famous for being slow-moving and they don't even have limbs. But if you have the patience to watch a pair of snails going at it, you'll notice that things get interesting.

The first factor that complicates snail sex is their genitalia. Snails are hermaphrodites, meaning individuals have both a male set and female set of parts, and any two snails can reproduce with each other regardless of sex. But in order for a couple of snails to make little snail babies, one of them needs to take on the role of the female. That's where the love dart comes in.

The love dart, technically called a gypsobelum, isn't exactly the Cupid's arrow the name suggests. It's a nail-clipping-sized spike that snails jab into their partners about 30 minutes before the actual sex act takes place. The sliver is packed with hormones that prepare the receiving snail's body for sperm. Depending on the species, only one snail might release the dart, or they both might in an attempt to avoid becoming the female of the pair. You can watch the action in the video below.

For sex to be successful, both snails must insert their penises into the other's vaginal tracts at the same time. Both snails deposit sperm, and the strength of the love dart ultimately determines whether or not that sperm fertilizes their partner's eggs.

That's assuming the snail survives the little love-stab. In human proportions, the love dart is the equivalent of a 15-inch knife. Fortunately, snails are resilient creatures, and gastropod researcher Joris Koene tells KQED he's only ever seen one snail die from the transfer.

Snails also have a way of making it up to their partners after skewering them with a hormone stick. Their sperm deposit contains a dose of fortifying nutrients, something scientists refer to as a nuptial gift. It may not equal the energy expended during sex, but its enough to give them a small post-coital boost.

10 Facts About Rosacea

iStock
iStock

Rosacea, a skin condition characterized by redness and swelling, is incredibly common: A recent study found that an estimated 300 million people worldwide suffer from it. Here’s what you need to know about the condition.

1. IT HAS A LONG HISTORY.

According to the National Rosacea Society (NRS), rosacea was first described in the 14th century by a French surgeon named Dr. Guy de Chauliac; he called it goutterose (“pink drop” in French) or couperose and noted that it was characterized by “red lesions in the face, particularly on the nose and cheeks.”

2. SCIENTISTS AREN’T SURE WHAT CAUSES IT ...

But they have some theories. According to the NRS, “most experts believe it is a vascular disorder that seems to be related to flushing.” Scientists also think that because rosacea seems to run in families, it might be genetic. Other things—like mites that live on the skin, an intestinal bug called H pylori (common in those who have rosacea), and a reaction to a bacterium called bacillus oleronius—could also play a role in causing the condition. One 2015 study suggested an increased risk among smokers.

3. … BUT SOME PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO HAVE IT THAN OTHERS.

Though people of all ages and skin tones can get rosacea, fair skinned people between the ages of 30 and 50 with Celtic and Scandinavian ancestry and a family history of rosacea are more likely to develop the condition. Women are more likely to have rosacea than men, though their symptoms tend to be less severe than men’s. But men are more likely to suffer from a rare rosacea side effect known as rhinophyma, which causes the skin of the nose to thicken and become bulbous. It’s commonly—and mistakenly—associated with heavy drinking, but what exactly causes rhinophyma is unclear. According to the NRS, “The swelling that often follows a flushing reaction may, over time, lead to the growth of excess tissue (fibroplasia) around the nose as plasma proteins accumulate when the damaged lymphatic system fails to clear them. Leakage of a substance called blood coagulation factor XIII is also believed to be a potential cause of excess tissue.” Thankfully, those who have rhinophyma have options available for treatment, including surgery and laser therapy.

4. THERE ARE FOUR SUBTYPES.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), rosacea “often begins with a tendency to blush or flush more easily than other people.” All rosacea involves redness of some kind (typically on the nose, cheeks, chin, and forehead), but other symptoms allow the condition to be divided into four subtypes: Erythematotelangiectatic rosacea is characterized by persistent redness and sometimes visible blood vessels; Papulopustular rosacea involves swelling and “acne-like breakouts”; Phymatous rosacea is characterized by thick and bumpy skin; and Ocular rosacea involves red eyes (that sometimes burn and itch, or feel like they have sand in them [PDF]), swollen eyelids, and stye-like growths.

5. IT’S NOT THE SAME AS ACNE.

Though rosacea was once considered a form of acne—"acne rosacea" first appeared in medical literature in 1814—today doctors know it’s a different condition altogether. Though there are similarities (like acne, some forms of rosacea are characterized by small, pus-filled bumps) there are key differences: Acne involves blackheads, typically occurs in the teen years, and can appear all over the body; rosacea is a chronic condition that occurs mainly on the face and the chest and typically shows up later in life.

6. YOU CAN FIND IT IN CLASSIC ART AND LITERATURE.

Both Chaucer and Shakespeare likely made references to rosacea. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1490 painting An Old Man and His Grandson seems to depict rhinophyma, and some believe that Rembrandt’s 1659 self-portrait shows that the artist had rosacea and rhinophyma.

7. IT MAY BE TRIGGERED BY CERTAIN FOODS AND ACTIVITIES.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) [PDF], people report that everything from the weather to what you eat can cause rosacea to flare up: Heat, cold, sunlight, and wind, strenuous exercise, spicy food, alcohol consumption, menopause, stress, and use of steroids on the skin are all triggers.

8. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF MYTHS ABOUT ROSACEA.

No, it’s not caused by caffeine and coffee (flare ups, if they occur, are due to the heat of your coffee) or by heavy drinking (though alcohol does exacerbate the condition). Rosacea isn’t caused by poor hygiene, and it’s not contagious.

9. THERE ARE SOME PRETTY FAMOUS PEOPLE WITH ROSACEA.

Sophia Bush, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Chenoweth, Bill Clinton, and Sam Smith all have rosacea. Diana, Princess of Wales had it, too. W.C. Fields had rosacea and rhinophyma, and Andy Warhol may also have suffered from those conditions.

10. IT CAN’T BE CURED—BUT IT CAN BE TREATED.

The NRS reports that “nearly 90 percent of rosacea patients [surveyed by NRS] said this condition had lowered their self-confidence and self-esteem, and 41 percent reported it had caused them to avoid public contact or cancel social engagements.” Dr. Uwe Gieler, a professor of dermatology at the Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany, and one of the authors of the report Rosacea: Beyond the Visible, said in a press release that "People with rosacea are often judged on their appearance, which impacts them greatly in daily life. If their rosacea is severe, the symptoms are likely to be more significant also, from itching and burning to a permanently red central facial area. However, even people with less severe rosacea report a significant impact on quality of life."

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that there’s not a cure for the condition. Thankfully, though, there are treatments available.

There are no tests that will diagnose rosacea; that’s up to your doctor, who will examine your medical history and go over your symptoms. Doctors advise that those with rosacea pay attention to what triggers flare-ups, which will help them figure out how to treat the condition. Antibiotics might be prescribed; laser therapy might be used. Anyone with rosacea should always wear sunscreen [PDF] and treat their skin very, very gently—don't scrub or exfoliate it. The AAD recommends moisturizing daily and avoiding products that contain things like urea, alcohol, and glycolic and lactic acids.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER