REU: Virtual Unrolling of Carbonized Herculaneum Scrolls

Grants and Contracts Details


This project will develop algorithms and a framework for extracting the written text from volumetric, nondestructive scans of scrolls, which were carbonized in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum as a result of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. A long-standing barrier has finally been broken. There was previously no proven method for digitizing an intact scroll that guaranteed contrast between the ink and carbonized papyrus. Now such scans can be acquired, enabling the recovery of text from intact scrolls without causing damage, a challenge that has proven impossible since their discovery. The library from Herculaneum, which was first discovered in 1752, is of immense interest to scholars worldwide. The excavated collection contains more than 1800 carbonized papyrus scrolls, and is the only library known to have survived from classical antiquity. All attempts at opening the scrolls have created profound damage, and many scrolls (nearly 300) are still intact. The technical focus of this work is to build a computational framework in order to “digitally unroll” two complete scrolls, producing a complete solution to the technical challenges and prescribing a path for the scholarly organization and publication of all inacessible texts in the Herculaneum collection. The PI has extensive experience in applying volumetric methods to damaged materials and has established partnerships for access tomaterial and collaboration withmanuscript experts. The education and outreach plan is facilitated by support from the Vis Center at the University of Kentucky and by the association of the PI with the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. Intellectual Merit This work will definitively establish that volumetric, non-destructive imaging methods can reveal complete texts that were long thought lost. The algorithms and computational framework will set the stage for the interdisciplinary discovery of new works from antiquity, the scaling of these methods and algorithms to the complete Herculaneum collection, and the broader interest in volumetric analysis for cultural heritage. Broader Impact The successful application of this work to Herculaneum scrolls represents a confluence of physics, computer science, and the humanities. Interdisciplinary discovery and compelling information visualization are key components for education, innovation, story-telling, and inspiration founded on science and engineering across disciplines. More broadly, this work will expand volumetric imaging toward a more widely used representational platform and will address fundamental technical challenges. The use and continued improvement of volumetric imaging methods should become a primary goal for cultural objects of high value from which rich information can be extracted and preserved with minimal risk to collections. Finally, it is widely believed that there exists an unexcavated portion of the library at Herculaneum that could contain many more intact, carbonized papyri. This work, in providing a proven method for reading carbonized scrolls, will create very positive enthusiasm for further archaeological exploration. Keywords breakthrough, volumetric imaging, registration, computed tomography, visualization, segmentation
Effective start/end date8/1/147/31/15


  • National Science Foundation


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