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 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.

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 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.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

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Amazon

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

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Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

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6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

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8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

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9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

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10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

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Why Your Christmas Lights Always Get Tangled, According to Science

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iStock

A Christmas tree isn't a Christmas tree without those pretty colored lights, right? OK, no problem. You stored them in a box marked "Xmas lights" 11 months ago. You know where the box is. Now you just have to open the box, grab the lights, and—

That's where it gets tricky. Unless you're very lucky, or extremely well organized, the lights are likely all tangled up; soon you're down on your hands and knees, struggling to untangle a spaghetti-like jumble. (And it's not just you: A couple of years ago, the British grocery chain Tesco hired temporary "Christmas light untanglers" for the holiday season.) But why are Christmas lights so prone to tangling in the first place—and can anything be done about it?

Why do Christmas lights get tangled in the first place?

There are really two separate problems, explains Colin Adams, a mathematician at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the author of The Knot Book, an introduction to the mathematical theory of knots. First, the cord on which the lights are attached is prone to tangling—just as headphone and earbud cords are (or, in the past, telephone handset cords).

Several years ago, physicists Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith, then at the University of California, San Diego, did a study to see just how easily cords can get tangled. They put bits of string of various lengths in a cube-shaped box, and then mechanically rotated the box so that the strings tumbled around, like socks in a dryer, repeating the experiment more than 3400 times. The first knots appeared within seconds. More than 120 different types of knots spontaneously formed during the experiment. They also found—perhaps not surprisingly—that the longer the string, the more likely it was to become knotted (few knots formed in strings shorter than 18 inches, they noted). As the length of the string increased, the probability of a knot forming approached 100 percent.

The material that the string (or cord) is made of is important too; a more flexible cord is more likely to tangle than a less flexible one. And while the length of the cord matters, so does its diameter: In general, long cords get tangled more easily than short ones, but a cord with a large diameter will be less flexible, which reduces the risk of knotting. In other words, it's the ratio of length to diameter that really matters. That's why a garden hose can get tangled—it's relatively stiff, but it's also very long compared to its diameter.

But that's not the end of the story. If a cord has a metal wire inside it—as traditional Christmas lights do—then it can acquire a sort of "natural curvature," Jay Miller, a senior research scientist at the Connecticut-based United Technologies Research Center, tells Mental Floss. That means that a wire that's been wrapped around a cylindrical spool, for example, will tend to retain that shape.

"Christmas lights are typically spooled for shipping or packing, which bends metal wire past its 'plastic limit,' giving it natural curvature approximately the size of the spool it was wound around," Miller says. Christmas lights can be even harder to straighten than other wound materials because they often contain a pair of intertwined wires, giving them an intrinsic twist.

And then there's the additional problem of the lights. "Christmas lights are doubly difficult, once things get tangled, because there are all of these little projections—the lights—sticking out of them," Adams says. "The lights get in the way of each other, and it makes it very difficult to pull one strand through another. That means once you're tangled, it's much harder to disentangle."

How do you fix tangled Christmas lights?

What, then, can be done? One option would be for manufacturers to make the cord out of a stiff yet elastic material—something that would more readily "bounce back" from the curvature that was imparted to it while in storage. A nickel-titanium alloy known as Nitinol might be a candidate, says Miller—but it's too expensive to be a practical choice. And anyway, the choice of material probably makes little difference as long as the lights still protrude from the cord. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in recent years has been the proliferation of LED "rope lights" that don't employ traditional bulbs at all; rather, they use LEDs embedded within the rope-like cord itself. Of course, these can still get tangled up in the manner of a garden hose, but without those pesky protrusions, they're easier to untangle.

A simpler solution, says Adams, is to coil the lights very carefully when putting them away, ideally using something like twist-ties to keep them in place. (Martha Stewart has proposed something similar, using sheets of cardboard instead of twist-ties.)

Meanwhile, the mathematicians have some advice if you find yourself confronted with a hopelessly tangled, jumbled cord: Find one of the "free" ends, and work from there.

"Eventually," Adams assures us, "you will succeed."