Hot Topics 2022

Reading the Invisible Library: Virtual Unwrapping and the Scroll from En-Gedi

Wed Feb 9, 2022
6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
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Update: This program has been postponed.

In monitoring the current COVID situation in Eagle County, and out of an abundance of caution, the Vail Symposium has decided to postpone this in-person event until further notice. We will reschedule this event at a time where we can safely gather together to experience this program in person. In the meantime, we hope you will join us for our upcoming online webinars.

Thank you for your understanding.  

Indecipherable for two millennia, ancient scrolls buried in volcanic ash are finally revealing their mysteries thanks to 21st-century technology. The Herculaneum scrolls represent the only intact library known from the classical world, an unprecedented cache of ancient knowledge. Most classical texts we know today were copied–and were therefore filtered and distorted–by scribes over centuries but these works came straight from the hands of the Greek and Roman scholars themselves. Unfortunately, the tremendous volcanic heat and gases spewed by Vesuvius carbonized the scrolls, turning them black and hard. Attempts to open some of the scrolls created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text. Hundreds of the papyri were therefore left unopened, with no realistic prospect that their contents would ever be revealed…until now. Enter computer scientist Brent Seales.

Progress over the past decade in the digitization and analysis of text found in cultural objects (inscriptions, manuscripts, scrolls) has led to new methods for reading the “invisible library.”

This presentation explains the development of non-invasive methods, showing results from restoration projects on Homeric manuscripts, Herculaneum material and Dead Sea scrolls.  Premised on “virtual unwrapping” as an engine for discovery, the presentation culminates in a new approach that may indeed be the pathway for rescuing still-readable text from some of the most stubbornly damaged materials, like the enigmatic Herculaneum scrolls.

Kathy and Neal Kimmel generously underwrite our Hot Topics Series.

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Brent Seales

Brent Seales

Alumni Professor Computer Science

University of Kentucky