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“The idea is that you put the scroll in the machine and it does a pirouette. And as it turns around, the x-rays see what’s inside the scroll from every possible angle, 360 degrees, all the way around. And we can invert that and recover a complete representation of what’s inside, in three dimensions.”

In 1750 well diggers discovered a villa near the ancient town of Herculaneum that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Among the treasures pulled from the villa were more than 1,000 papyrus scrolls that had been turned to carbon by the volcano. Over the centuries since their discovery, many have tried to open and read these papyri in the hopes of discovering great lost works of antiquity, but they damaged these scrolls in the process. However, with modern imaging technology and artificial intelligence, it may now be possible to read these papyri without ever opening them.

In this episode, computer scientist Brent Seales and Getty antiquities curator Ken Lapatin discuss the history of these scrolls, past approaches to opening them, and the exciting opportunities presented by “virtual unwrapping.”

More to explore:

Buried by Vesuvius: The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum buy the related publication
Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri learn about the related exhibition

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
BRENT SEALES: The idea is that you put the scroll in the machine and it does a pirouette. And as it ...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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