Scientists are on the hunt for lost works of classical literature, using ever-more sophisticated tools and techniques. But sometimes the simplest methods, when paired with dumb luck and a pair of sharp eyes, may yield more spectacular results than a lab full of equipment. That irony was illustrated recently by two news-making reports from the field of classical studies.
An article in the January 20 issue of Nature (picked up by the New York Times for that day) described a process called X-ray phase contrast imaging (XPCT), developed for reading the carbonized papyrus scrolls recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum. These scrolls were reduced to charred lumps by the volcanic eruption that buried Herculaneum and Pompeii in 79 A.D., rendering them nearly impossible to unroll. According to Vito Mocella of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems at the University of Naples, the head of the XPCT research team, the new process can recover text from the incredibly involuted surface of the papyrus—while it is still rolled up.
The potential benefits of such a process are huge, since the so-called Villa Dei Papiri in Herculaneum—the private house of a well-read man (almost certainly Gaius Piso, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law)—has yielded more than a hundred of these charred scrolls and may contain hundreds more. Those retrieved so far, and deciphered with painstaking care over the last three decades, have proved to contain previously lost works by a minor philosopher named Philodemus. The recovery of Philodemus’s works—large portions of On Poems and On Rhetoric have already been published by university presses—has admittedly been of interest mainly to specialists, but other, more central texts may perhaps lie buried beneath layers of volcanic ash in the villa’s lower levels.
Mocella’s description of how XPCT works is a marvel of modern technospeak. The caption beneath an illustration of the process in the Nature article begins with the following sentence: “A pre-ﬁltered synchrotron X-ray wavefront is monochromatized by a double Laue-Laue monochromator.” No classicist I know could make sense of that description, but it’s clear that the very most modern, and no doubt expensive, equipment and expertise are being applied to some of the world’s most ancient writings.
While the double Laue-Laue monochromators were firing in Venice, Oxford classicist Dirk Obbink was revealing a much lower-tech approach to the recovery of classical literature. In a paper delivered (by proxy) on January 9 to the Society for Classical Studies in New Orleans, a version of which will soon appear in a scholarly journal, Obbink at last revealed the story behind his spectacular announcement, about a year ago, that two new poems of Sappho, one of them nearly complete, had been found on a papyrus scrap in the collection of an unnamed private individual.
The anonymity of the owner of that papyrus, and Obbink’s long vagueness about the circumstances of its discovery, had raised concerns among scholars, who feared that the papyrus had been obtained illegally (as many such papyri are). The New Orleans paper did much to dispel these concerns. The Sappho papyrus has legal provenance, Dr. Obbink revealed, and has been legitimately owned for more than half a century. It was merely stuck together with other papyrus scraps and therefore, until recently, invisible.
Here’s the twisting tale behind the most important classical literary find of the last few decades: A batch of papyrus scraps, brought out of Egypt in 1954 (prior to the regulations that banned such exports), ended up in the hands of a collector named David Wilson, who later willed them to the University of Mississippi. There the seemingly unremarkable scraps languished for decades, until the library, pressed for cash in order to purchase a set of Faulkner materials, sold them at auction in 2011. The new owner, another private individual, recognized that some of the scraps he had bought consisted of multiple layers. They had once been cartonnage, a papier maché-like material made by gluing sheets of papyrus together, to make a thick mass suitable for mummy wrappings or funerary masks.
The last, climactic stage in the recovery of the Sappho papyrus is described thus by Obbink: “The layers of the cartonnage fragment were separated by the owner and his staff … by dissolving in a warm-water solution.” Exactly what I would have done—before putting the two-millennia-old papyri on top of my radiator to dry.
It took Obbink’s expert eye to read the text on the now-liberated scrap and identify the poems it contained as Sappho’s (a man named Charaxos, whose distinctive name was already known to belong to Sappho’s brother, was mentioned in one of its first lines). But it was a wonderfully banal technique that brought that scrap to light, in contrast to the ponderous efforts described in the article on XPCT. While research labs have brought the best of modern technology to bear on the Herculaneum papyri, and regained two recondite philosophic treatises, a far more important recovery has come to light thanks to a simple bowl of warm water.
There’s a lesson there that the ancients Greeks would have treasured.