Hot Topics 2023

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

Thu Feb 9, 2023
6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
Event Video

A view of the central region of the ancient Roman settlement of Herculaneum, Italy

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 the Hot Topics series

Event Video


Brent Seales

Brent Seales

Alumni Professor Computer Science

University of Kentucky