Digital Technologies and the Herculaneum Papyri

Sarah Hendricks (Centro Internazionale Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi, Naples)

Digital Classicist London & Institute of Classical Studies seminar 2015

Friday August 14th at 16:30, in Room G21A, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Livecast at Digital Classicist London YouTube channel.

With the recent announcement of a breakthrough that will one day enable text on Herculaneum rolls to be read without unrolling them, the future of Herculaneum studies is set to change (Mocella et al. 2015). Until that day, papyrologists will continue to study those rolls that have already been opened in other ways. Innovative technology has played a key role in the history of the papyri since the days of their first discovery in the 1750s. With the advent of digital technologies in the 1970s, work on the Herculaneum papyri has progressed apace. Using the example of PHerc 78, the so-called Caecilius Statius ‘Obolostates sive Faenerator’, this paper examines the relationship between digital technologies and the Herculaneum Papyri and explains how changing technological developments have impacted upon transcribing and editing the work.

The identification of PHerc 78 was announced in 1996 with the reconstruction of a title at the end of the roll (Kleve, Knut 1996). This reconstruction was possible only with the help of micro-imaging, a technique developed in the 1980s especially for transcribing Herculaneum texts (Macfarlane 2005). This type of imaging was also used to reconstruct portions of the missing text and provide new material for a play that had barely survived otherwise in the tradition. Prior to this, the papyrus had been considered ‘illegible’ and no attempt had been made to identify, let alone reconstruct, the text (Gigante 1979).

Almost a decade later, more experimental imaging was done on the papyrus, this time, multi-spectral imaging. The results were a huge leap forward for the field as they rendered a far more striking contrast between ink and carbonised papyrus than had previously been seen (Booras and Seely 1999). While the text becomes far more visible, the downside to this technique is the 2D rendering of the papyrus surface, which in reality is covered with numerous wrinkles, creases and changes in papyrus layers. Unsurprisingly, this results in a much higher probability of error in transcribing the text.

More than another decade has passed since then and sure enough, a new technology is now available: 3D imaging. As with previous developments, this one too is changing the way in which we study the Herculaneum Papyri and enabling the shortcomings of previous techniques to be overcome. In addition, this type of technology has an added conservation benefit, since it enables digital manipulation of the papyrus rather than solely physical. In the case of PHerc 78, it has also, however, given some cause to re-assess the identification and contents of the papyrus.

The way in which work is conducted on the Herculaneum Papyri is directly related to changes in digital technology and their availability. In the case of PHerc 78 these innovations have brought about a re-examination, rather than a consolidation, of what is known about the papyrus. Digital technologies are therefore an exciting prospect for Herculaneum studies and with the impending ability to read as yet unrolled papyri, who knows what we may yet find.


Booras, S.W., and D.R. Seely. 1999. “Multispectral Imaging of the Herculaneum Papyri.” Cronache Ercolanesi 29: 95–100.

Gigante, Marcello. 1979. Catalogo dei papiri ercolanesi. Napoli: Bibliopolis.

Kleve, Knut. 1996. “How to Read an Illegible Papyrus. Towards an Edition of PHerc. 78, Caecilius Statius, Obolostates Sive Faenerator.” CErc 26: 5–14.

Macfarlane, R. 2005. “New Readings Toward Electronic Publication of PHerc. 1084.” Cronache Ercolanesi 33: 165–67.

Mocella, Vito, Emmanuel Brun, Claudio Ferrero, and Daniel Delattre. 2015. “Revealing Letters in Rolled Herculaneum Papyri by X-Ray Phase-Contrast Imaging.” Nature Communications 6 (January). doi:10.1038/ncomms6895.


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.