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BORIS JOHNSON: The hundreds of badly barbecued scrolls unlocking the secrets of the ancient world – thanks to modern British ingenuity


Well, folks, it looks as though we have cracked it at last. With the help of British technology and Artificial Intelligence, we have found a way of deciphering the scrolls of Herculaneum. 

If the scientists are right, we are on the verge of an epoch-making discovery.

It appears that we now have the technology to negate the catastrophic damage done to these frail papyri – almost 2,000 years ago – by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

And if we can read these 1,800 badly barbecued scrolls, we may be about to reveal some of the greatest missing masterpieces of literature.

We therefore stand trembling on the threshold of a treasury that may turn out to be more golden than that of Tutankhamen or any other pharaoh.

We may be about to uncork some truly mind-expanding vintages, works of poetry, drama, philosophy and mathematics that have been lost for thousands of years.

I don’t believe there is a single reader of this great, cultivated and civilised newspaper who can conceivably remain indifferent to what is at stake.

A fragment of a Herculaneum scroll shows the markings on the fragile material

A fragment of a Herculaneum scroll shows the markings on the fragile material

A fragile Herculanuem scroll - part of a 2,000-year-old pair carbonised and preserved into crumpled, blackened cylinders by the eruption of Vesuvius

A fragile Herculanuem scroll – part of a 2,000-year-old pair carbonised and preserved into crumpled, blackened cylinders by the eruption of Vesuvius

They made us, my friends. It was Greece and Rome – the classical world – that laid the foundations of our modern world.

You are reading these words in a semi-Latinate language; you are living in a democracy, whose founding idea was born in Greece.

Your home, large or small, will be full of cornicing and pediments and architraves and other barely noticed inheritances from the classical canon of architecture.

You watch multi-episode TV revenge plots and family psychodramas that have their origins in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides.

Wherever you live in the West – in Europe or the Americas or Australasia – you are the cultural and intellectual descendant of Greece and Rome, whether you acknowledge the fact or not; and that is because it was those great cultures that inspired the Renaissance – literally the rebirth of the ancient world.

It was the Renaissance that led to the Enlightenment and the political, commercial and technological rise of the modern West, whether you speak of the G7 or the OECD countries that still account for the vast bulk of humanity’s wealth and innovative power.

That sequence was in itself something of a miracle, because there was a terrible interruption between the ancient world and the Renaissance.

They called it the Dark Ages, which followed the Fall of Rome; and in those Dark Ages, the legacy of the Greek and Roman cultures was very nearly lost. The Renaissance only happened because there was a sudden revival of interest, beginning in Italy, in the thought and writings of the ancient world.

They began to dig out the texts – mouldy and moth-eaten – that had been all but lost to European memory. They rootled around in monastery libraries. The Crusaders brought them back from Byzantium, where they had been conserved by monks.

Slowly, they translated and spread them, and in England those texts became the foundation of our early modern or Elizabethan culture.

Shakespeare himself feasts on the great banquet of Plutarch and Ovid and others, and without his knowledge of the classics he might have been great, but he would not have been the Shakespeare we know.

And even Shakespeare, relatively learned though he was, had access to only a tiny fraction of the corpus of Greek and Latin literature, because so much had already been destroyed. From time to time, in the last few hundred years, we have recovered a few fragments – such as the scraps of poetry on the backs of laundry lists, preserved in the dry sands of Egypt. But the gaps remain, and they are achingly vast.

Take Sappho, the lovelorn lesbian of Lesbos. She was so famous in the ancient world, and so revered, that they called her the tenth Muse; and what we have is indeed very beautiful.

But we have only one complete poem by Sappho; and as for those more recent fragments from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, they are so full of square brackets — where there are words missing — that it is sometimes hard to tell if she is lusting after a boy or a girl (it’s generally a girl).

Or take Aeschylus. Only a handful of his 90 plays survive – but the influence of what we have has been colossal. Seven Against Thebes has inspired everything from the Seven Samurai to the Magnificent Seven to the music of The Clash.

What if we find his other 80-odd plays, or Homer’s allegedly obscene Margites, or Aristotle on Comedy? So much has just vanished, so much that could change our view of the ancient world.

So when we hear of a vast library of texts, just waiting to be unlocked, the excitement is enormous because it is astonishing that we have this library at all.

A conservator shows a Papyrus Herculaneum, carbonised by the eruption of Vesuvius in the National Library of Naples

A conservator shows a Papyrus Herculaneum, carbonised by the eruption of Vesuvius in the National Library of Naples

In late August 79 AD the pyroclastic* surge from the erupting Vesuvius engulfed the swish resorts of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and as the superheated volcanic matter roared down the slope it vitrified the brains of people in its path, and froze them in their death agony.

And yet, when it came to a huge villa on the sea at Herculaneum – which may have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law Calpurnius Piso — something extraordinary happened.

The library had been packed up, in the hope that it could escape the lava, but it was too late. The scrolls were not incinerated, because there was no oxygen to burn them.

Instead they were flash-fried into crumpled, blackened cylinders. In the centuries since their discovery there have been disastrous attempts to open them – and always the carbonised remains have crumpled illegibly away.

In the last few months, though, we had a breakthrough. Using the particle accelerator at Harwell in Oxford to locate the minerals in the ink, and using AI to work out what letters these ink blobs must form, researchers were able to read 5 per cent of a scroll that is not only unopened, but unopenable.

They have struck gold. It is plainly a work of Epicurean philosophy, and of great potential interest. But we need to read more of it, and the process is currently laborious and expensive.

These scrolls may be only ten to 20cm wide, but they can be up to 15m long. It costs a fortune to take them to Harwell, and at the present rate it will cost more than £1million for every one of the 1,800 scrolls – to say nothing of others that may yet be found in the villa.

Well, there is nothing for it, and no finer investment for the world.

Now that we can read them, we must read them. When we look at these carbonised bits of crud, we are looking at the literary foundations of our whole society.

Have we become so ignorant of our history, so apathetic, that we can just pass this up?

The technology is getting better the whole time, and the cost will start to come down. But it is still a bagatelle** for Western governments or a tech tycoon.

We can now discover not just lost glories, but glories we never knew existed. We owe it to our posterity to decipher those scrolls.

Dictionary Corner

*Pyroclastic: Relating to, consisting of, or denoting fragments of rock erupted by a volcano

**Bagatelle: A thing regarded as too unimportant or easy to be worth much consideration



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