Futuristic technology reveals secrets in ancient Vesuvius Scrolls

Ancient time capsules

“Human civilization,” says classicist Richard Janko, “is a very fragile thing.”

He should know. For nearly 40 years, U-M’s Gerald F. Else Distinguished University Professor of Classical Studies has relied on his scholarly insights, nearly infinite patience, and sharp eyesight to decipher the charred and brittle Vesuvius Scrolls, a process now being sped up by AI and three-dimensional CT (computed tomography) scans.

These papyri are ancient time capsules. When Mount Vesuvius in Italy erupted in AD 79, it buried under 65 feet of superheated mud the palatial villa of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The pyroclastic flow carbonized about 800 papyrus scrolls in the miniature library of Piso’s former in-house scholar, Philodemus, tutor of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro (Vergil).

Early excavators in Herculaneum threw away many of the blackened lumps. Others unspooled the delicate relics but damaged them in the process. Only 270 survive untouched. Tens of thousands more scrolls, probably including lost masterpieces of literature, history, and philosophy, may still be entombed in Piso’s unexcavated personal library.

An eye for antiquities

Man stands at monitor showing ancient language on a scroll dating to

Professor Janko has spent 40 years seeking to decipher the Vesuvius Scrolls. (Image courtesy of Richard Janko.)

Today, Janko is a juror for the prestigious Vesuvius Challenge. This annual contest (so far, $1 million has been awarded) spurs computer scientists to hone their skill at virtually unwrapping papyri and teasing out black letter shapes of ink from black backgrounds.

Antiquities have always been a part of Janko’s life. He was born in a 350-year-old thatch-roofed stone cottage in the village of Weston Underwood, two hours north of London. Walking in nearby fields as a child, he sometimes found shards of Roman-era pottery.

His youthful fascination with all things ancient got an early boost from two local men. One lent him books about ancient Greece. Like many of Janko’s classicist teachers, he had operated behind enemy lines in Greece for British intelligence during World War II. The other, a retired military colonel, gave him Greek and Latin books he had tossed in his garden shed, rolling them out in a wheelbarrow full of unwanted moldy texts.

“I was terribly happy to be given those books,” Janko recalls. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to study Greek, and I never wavered in that. Of course, deciding what you want to do when you’re very young gives you more time to get good at it.”

Fascinated by Philodemus

Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus statue

Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus was a Roman senator whose villa was destroyed by the volcano known as Mount Vesuvius. Philodemus was his in-house scholar. (Image: Wikipedia.)

Janko won his role as a Vesuvius judge thanks, among other things, to his books on Philodemus. “He was a controversialist whose writings continually quote and try to rebut works by his adversaries. In doing that, of course, he preserved their work, which otherwise would have been lost. He’s an exciting source from which to learn more about other early thinkers,” says Janko.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Janko earned his PhD at Cambridge. Before coming to the University of Michigan in 2002 and serving as his department’s chair from 2002-07, he held professorships at Columbia, UCLA, and the University of London.

“Richard is a consummate scholar of ancient Greek civilization, ranging from the Mycenean Bronze Age down to Greek culture in the early Roman Empire,” says U-M professor emeritus Bruce W. Frier, the John and Teresa D’Arms Distinguished University Professor of Classics and Roman Law. According to Frier, Janko’s “painstaking attention to detail” and “broad, new, and often startling insights” have made him one of the top scholars in his field.

Classicists hailed Janko’s 2001 translation of the Derveni papyrus, the oldest surviving European book dating to 340 BC and a commentary on the cult of Orpheus. “It’s as if Stephen Hawking or Einstein took the book of Genesis and interpreted the account of the world’s creation in terms of molecules and particles,” says Janko. “It must have caused a real scandal because you don’t do that to a religious text.”

Janko teaches courses in the ancient Greek world, Hellenistic Greek literature and papyri, and Homer and the Trojan War.

“I’m still struck by how many of my students became interested in the classics because of the Greek myths. They have immense power,” he says. (Classical Studies remain popular at Michigan. Sixty percent of all undergraduates take at least one such course, according to Janko, though the number of students majoring in Classics has fallen.)

So much to be done

Aristotle on Comedy book cover -- green and black.

Janko began studying Philodemus and the scrolls in 1985, after publication of his controversial book.

Janko’s study of Philodemus and the scrolls began in 1985, following the publication of his controversial book Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II. It contended that one of the Greek philosopher’s treatises was not lost but is summarized in a medieval manuscript. (The plot of the best-selling 1983 novel The Name of the Rose and the 1986 Sean Connery movie of the same name concerns that same book.)

By chance, Janko’s Aristotle book led him to the National Library in Naples, where the Vesuvius scroll fragments are kept.

“I saw a little article by an Italian scholar complaining that nobody had noticed his 1955 article about a papyrus from Herculaneum in which Philodemus rebutted Aristotle’s poetics. That led me to an article from 1909 where a German scholar also complained that nobody had noticed his 1865 article about this papyrus, so I decided I’d better go and look at it,” he says. “When I got there, I was astonished at how much research on the scrolls remained to be done.”

Toilsome work conquers everything

Mount Vesuvius rising above the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius rises above the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. (Image: Encyclopedia Britannica.)

It took Janko about seven years to write each of his Philodemus books, the third of which was published in 2020. Early on, he deciphered shards of scrolls by tilting them at an angle in sunlight and squinting. After that, he faced the maddening challenge of putting words and letters together from a jigsaw array of fragments. The task became easier in the 1990s when the library purchased modern binocular microscopes and introduced infrared digital photography.

This odyssey of reconstruction might have defeated a lesser scholar. In a paper on the arduous process, Janko wrote “As Vergil feelingly put it, ‘labor omnia vincit improbus.’ [Ed. Note: ‘Toilsome work conquers everything.’] Only when clad in an armament of unremitting effort and the magic of numbers, harnessing fire-breathing bulls and facing down armed skeletons left and right, can one plough the field of these papyri and reap their harvest of new texts.”

Janko admits that sometimes, even he runs out of patience. When he gets frustrated, he walks in the woods or fields. “If the problem seems insoluble, I drop it for a year or two and then try again,” he says.

Janko believes future digs at the villa may exhume lost works of unparalleled value, such as histories, plays by Aeschylus and Euripides, works by the Greek poet Sappho, and epic poems on the Trojan War that fill in the gaps between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Wealthy Romans often had libraries containing 40,000 scrolls or more. Piso’s villa boasted a tiered semicircular room resembling a lecture hall, and only one of its multiple stories has been investigated. It has plenty of room for a significant library.

Early Christian documents are unlikely to be found at the villa. Few additions appear to have been made to Philodemus’ library after his death in about 35 BC. Even by 79 AD, Christianity had hardly penetrated Italy, according to Janko.

Assembly line

The Vesuvius Scrolls, appearing like petrified croissants, in a drawer.

Thanks to new technology, the Vesuvius Scrolls are finally giving up their secrets. (Image courtesy of Richard Janko.)

The rolled-up scrolls are finally giving up their secrets to new technologies because of the Vesuvius Challenge. But each papyrus has hundreds of layers. Because oven-hot gases and mud burned, crushed, and distorted them, they are never flat and must be manually reassembled one layer at a time.

Janko believes computer scientists will soon find a way to automate processing and organize the layers. Plus, with greater use of portable CT scanners and more communication between scholars and computer scientists on how to recognize ink, new texts and translations will appear at an increasingly swift pace.

Janko predicts that four of Philodemus’ remaining 270 scrolls will be read and translated this year.

He hopes the pace of the work picks up even more. After all, Vesuvius is an active volcano.

“That particular spot has been covered with molten lava several times since the AD 79 eruption. Vesuvius is quiet for now,” Janko says. But past experience teaches that it’s never quiet indefinitely.”


  1. Karl Stone - 1957, 1959

    I just finished reading the article, “The Race to Decode an Ancient Scroll, How scientists, gamers and Silicon Valley solved a centuries-old mystery – and changed papyrology forever,” by Tomas Weber, featured in the Scientific American April 2024 issue. Fantastic work employing, combining and creating modern technology to read these priceless ancient scrolls. AI hold so much promise when used to further knowledge in many diverse fields. But we must catch up with controlling it with legal boundaries to avoid its misuse.


  2. David Krause - 1962, 1986

    Very interesting article. Great knowing that fields of study like this are still being actively pursued at UM


    • Marvin Atkins - 1961 (Ph.D.)

      Bravo! Certainly agree with your comment. I’ll probably switch part of my contribution to the Classics area and cut College of Engineering. Or, as a true Wolverine might say, give both of them a raise! Marv


  3. Sushil Birla - 1997

    I found this inter-disciplinary research very fascinating and inspiring. (Historically, academia have been “silo-ed”).
    The international collaboration is also inspiring and encouraging.
    Breaking down traditional barriers across nations and academic disciplines will lead us into a better civilization.
    This dimension of the story is even more exciting than the deciphering of the damaged scrolls.


  4. Joellen Killion - 1970

    As a Classics major, I am delighted to know that there is great hope of unraveling the mysteries of the Vesuvius treasures.


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