Richard Janko and his colleagues are using scientific techniques developed at the California Institute of Technology to decipher ancient texts, a breakthrough resulting in hundreds of long-lost writings from authors such as Sophocles and Aristotle.
Janko is working with papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum, a town buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
Similar efforts are under way with texts once buried in a trash heap at Oxyrhynchus, which is southwest of Cairo. The material includes everything from tax receipts to religious texts.
The writing is often illegible, sometimes because the papyri were burned, but researchers at Brigham Young University have made them readable via multispectral digital imaging.
Q: Please describe your work.
A: I've been working to reconstruct the ancient books found in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum.
We started without much technology. At a certain point, better microscopes were introduced, and that was a big change, but then in 1998, multispectral digital imaging came along. That has certainly transformed the way we work.
It was developed for viewing distant objects in the solar system, the remote planets where everything is black - the planet is black and the background is black.
The papyri were burned in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79. In their case, too, the papyrus is black and the ink written on it is black, and it's very hard for the naked eye to see.
You can see the ink most of the time, although you have to tilt the papyrus because it looks like burnt newspaper. The ink is matte and the background is shiny, and that's how you tell the difference. But obviously you can't work away from the originals, given that situation, and they can't be photographed by normal means.
The multispectral imaging developed by Cal Tech for NASA can bring out frequencies that the human eye can't see. When this was first applied to these burned texts, of which there are many hundreds remaining to be read, whole pieces became more visible.
I remember once when I went back to one piece that had very few letters visible. I had toiled for a long time to read very little. Basically, I wanted to confirm the handwriting so I could assign it to the correct scroll, and the imaging showed lots of letters the human eye couldn't see.
So we went back to the original to confirm it, and I thought I would be able to confirm those letters, but then after looking at the original for 10 minutes under the microscope, I realized from the shape that I had it upside-down. Couldn't see any of the letters, it was so bad.
Q: What papyri are you currently studying?
A: These books, which were found in the 1750s, were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, but they were much older. A lot of them comprise the library of a philosopher who was the teacher of the poet Virgil, and I've been interested in reconstructing his books, which are about poetry, because this philosopher was himself a poet. His name was Philodemus (c.110-40 BCE). He dedicated some of his works to Vergil, actually.
The connection with the Oxyrhynchus Papyri is that recently the multispectral technology was used. Paradoxically, (researchers) started with the most difficult papyri, the ones that were burned and therefore very hard to read. Now they're reading the ones not burned, and they're much like our paper.
Oxyrhynchus was a place on the Nile River where earlier this century, they excavated the town dump and found remains of innumerable documents and a great many ancient books which unfortunately are more fragmentary, whereas the collection from Naples is whole books. (Naples is near the ancient town of Herculaneum, where the Villa of the Papyri is located.)
Although the largest collection of Oxyrhynchus papyri is kept in Oxford (University), there's a very large collection here at Michigan. All the Michigan papyri come from Egypt, and quite a number of them from Oxyrhynchus.
Q: Excavation at the Villa of the Papyri stopped in 1998. Why?
A: Some people say we've already got more than we can safely conserve. That is true; on the other hand, I think books are in a different category from other material, and we should try to retrieve them before the volcano erupts again, which it is scheduled to do.
Q: What has this work taught you about ancient literature?
A: All the philosophy from the previous 250 years before Philodemus was lost, and he has a habit of summarizing what people thought about poetry in that intervening period - between the time of Aristotle, who died in 322 B.C.E., and the time of Augustus, when Horace wrote about poetry and wrote about Philodemus, and quite probably knew the man himself.
Philodemus tells us there was a whole school of critics who thought the important thing about a poem is not what it means, but how it sounds.
Of course, a lot of modern poets and critics have thought the same thing - Mallarme, for example.
Philodemus didn't agree with them and he wrote quite long attacks on them. He also wrote very naughty love poems.
Q: What's surprised you about the work?
A: The biggest surprise is how much hasn't been done. ... There are hundreds of texts to be done, now that we've got the new technology.
Q: What's most excited you about this research?
A: The thing most exciting for me is the prospect of recovering new pieces or even new works of ancient literature that nobody's seen for a couple of thousand years. What we have is just a pitiful survival of a lost civilization. It's like having, from our own civilization, only those books that are read in high school, and not even all of those.
I'm sure this topic will get the John Noble Wilford treatment soon ...