Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ancient Scrolls May Soon Reveal Their Secrets

I have an illimitable appetite for books. I buy books all the time and am always reading at least two are three at once. The knowledge contained in books is certainly their first draw, but my passion for books goes far beyond mere information. I can get information online quicker than in a library or my own bookshelves. Looking at words on a computer screen, though, just isn't the same as holding a book in your hands. There is something romantic about holding a book, feeling it and smelling it (yes, smelling it). Books have their own personalities and I consider them more as companions rather than possessions (who would ever say such a thing about a web-site!).

In today's society you can buy books everywhere and books are written about every conceivable subject. In the ancient world, books didn't exist, let alone paper. Texts were written on scrolls made mainly of papyrus (though parchment, wax tablets and other forms were in use), and such items were reserved for the those wealthy enough to afford them. Publishing as we know it did not exist and scrolls were far less common than books are today. Libraries existed and it was common for wealthy persons to send one of their trained slaves to such libraries to copy texts for the home library (copyright laws didn't exist). Scrolls were covered with text written with no spaces and no punctuation and were not very long; several if not dozens of scrolls were needed for long works. One can imagine the organization required to keep a library, whether public or person, in a condition were anything could be found. I'm sure to the bibliophiles of the day, their scrolls were prized possessions, even more so since every scroll was a unique hand written copy.

Our knowledge of ancient literature is very comprehensive, yet we can only speculate at the amount of works lost to time. The works that have survived are mostly a result of copies made during the middle ages; the original scrolls having long disintegrated. There have been many fragments of scrolls found, mainly in Egypt and the near east, but their number doesn't rival the 1,785 scrolls found at the Villa of the Papyri near Herculaneum in Italy. The scrolls, turned to carbon during the volcanic eruption of 79 CE, were found in the 18th century and have been kept safe in Italy and France since then. Scientists are now trying to "unroll" the scrolls via computer and if they are successful, the world of ancient literature could be turned on it's head. We can only imagine what great lost works are hidden in these scrolls. Of course, they could be nothing more than grocery lists either, but that's not the point. Any written words from the past would help with our understanding of the ancient world. I'm always amazed at what technology can do for archaeology and I hope the scientists and scholars involved in this project are successful.