By Michael Platt
“Out of the Ashes,” an hour-long BYU documentary about the preservation of a sole-surviving library from the ancient world, hit Public Broadcasting Stations this week.
Herculaneum, the city housing the ancient library, was engulfed by volcanic mud from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, in the same eruption that entombed the city of Pompeii. The extremely hot mudflow carbonized more than 1,800 papyrus scrolls, charring them, yet miraculously preserving them.
Had the eruption not carbonized the papyri, they would have rotted centuries ago. Unfortunately, the carbonization that preserved them also made them nearly impossible to unroll, let alone read.
After 250 years of trial and error from scholars trying to unroll and read the ancient carbonized papyri, a team from BYU stepped in and used space-age multi-spectral imaging to create legible images of the papyrus scrolls.
“We were running our own show there, said Roger Macfarlane, associate professor and head of classics at BYU, as well as the principal investigator for the BYU Herculaneum Papyrus Project. “We were there because we had applied it to other texts before. It was very much a frontward leading type of thing.”
He added that “virtually 100 percent” of the scrolls that have been unrolled, about 1,200, have been digitally imaged and stored.
The documentary details the history of the scrolls and the work that has gone into trying to read the ancient works. Now that the film has been distributed to public broadcasters across the nation, BYU officials are thrilled.
“It”s really exciting that the BYU work and technology will be known around the country,” said Julie Walker, the producer/director of “Out of the Ashes.”
Macfarlane said, “I”d like it to draw more attention to the work that we”re doing at BYU. I”d also like it to … attract interest in this site, which still has a lot of unanswered questions surrounding it.”
“When we presented the video in Naples in October … in Italian,” he said, “the mayor of the modern city of Herculaneum … was really excited about all this and invited us back to make a presentation for the particular and express reason that she wants to encourage further excavation at Herculaneum.
“She”s hoping that further interest in the library will generate money that will attract more archeological activity and thus unveil the remaining part of the library.”
Preservation is a constant concern for those involved with the library. Many preservation techniques have not been adhered to over the past two and a half centuries, and the scrolls are deteriorating rapidly.
“They”re really well taken care of but they”re not kept in any climate controlled conditions,” Macfarlane said. “They expand and contract with climactic change, and so there is some change that happens to these papyri every single year, every month throughout the year, and that”s a problem. The digital archive really goes a long way toward prolonging the life of these scrolls in a certain sense.
“It”s all a matter of money. If the national library had money, they would probably put it to work to preserve the papyri, but they don”t. And also, you”re going against 250 years of tradition … they”ve been subjected to worse treatment than they”re getting now over the years.”
The documentary premiered in Provo on KBYU and BYU Television in May and June 2003. It will not be shown in Provo in the next three months, but it will premiere in other states in this and subsequent months. See the Herculaneum Web site for details.