BMCR 2023.01.40

Die Papyri Herkulaneums im Digitalen Zeitalter: Neue Texte durch neue Techniken – eine Kurzeinführung

, Die Papyri Herkulaneums im Digitalen Zeitalter: Neue Texte durch neue Techniken - eine Kurzeinführung. Hans-Lietzmann-Vorlesungen, 21. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. 137. ISBN 9783110766233

Open access


Within the general framework of Digital Papyrology and its ongoing development of new research strategies,[1] the carbonised papyrus rolls unearthed at Herculaneum constitute a prime example, due to the many editorial issues raised by their complicated material status.[2] Kilian Fleischer’s innovative monograph treats digital technologies not as part of a larger discussion of the Herculaneum papyri, but as the very focus of the book, using Herculaneum as a key to understanding the current and future developments of this research field. As such, this book does not overlap with the recent scholarship about the papyri,[3] and seeks to position itself as an original contribution in the papyrological landscape.

The volume begins with short chapters devoted to a general overview of the work itself (chapter 1 – see p. 3, “In diesem Büchlein, welches auch als erste deutsche Kurzeinführung in die Herkulanische Papyrologie dienen soll, werden die jüngsten technischen und philologisch-editorischen Entwicklungen sowie neueste Bildgebungsverfahren vorgestellt, die gegenwärtig an den Papyri erprobt werden”), the origin of the carbonised library (chapter 2), the finding and the early recovery of the rolls (chapters 3-4), their content (chapter 5), and their philological study so far (chapters 6-7).

The turning point comes in chapter 8: it is but one page, but it contains three important questions about Herculaneum Papyrology (“Die drei großen Meta-Fragen der Herkulanischen Papyrologie”, p. 46): the possibility of further excavations in the Villa and of further findings (the famous issue of the Latin section of the library); the possibility of extracting new textual data from already opened scrolls; the possibility of using modern techniques to unroll and/or to read the still unwrapped items.

Except for the first question (addressed in chapter 9), the two other points introduce deeper discussions of past and current digital techniques, significantly defined as two “revolutions” in Herculaneum Papyrology. The first ‘revolution’ (chapter 10) is that of digital imaging through a range of technologies (Multispectral Imaging, Reflectance Transformation Imaging, Hyperspectral Imaging, Shortwave-Infrared Imaging, X-Ray Fluorescence Mapping…), which allow for an increased contrast between the written text and the carbonised surface, resulting in increased legibility. The second revolution (chapter 11) is that of virtual unrolling, i.e. the application of tomographic techniques in order to ‘scan’ the wrapped rolls and to highlight the contrast between written text and carbonised surface without the risks associated with physically opening the scrolls. This second ‘revolution’ is remarkably defined as in spe, since its results, though encouraging, are still at an early stage.

After an attempt to calculate how much text the still unopened rolls may contain (chapter 12), a third digital ‘revolution’ is presented (chapter 13). It is the “philological revolution,” consisting in the application of digital methodologies to the traditional editorial practices. A discussion of new, still non-digital editorial methods[4] (“Es mag im ersten Moment überraschen, dass in den letzten Dekaden nicht nur technische Neuerungen, sondern auch viele genuin papyrologisch-philologische Neuansätze einen entscheidenden Beitrag zu verbesserten Editionen geleistet haben”, p. 80) does in fact not neglect the main contributions of digital technologies, since the author underlines the importance of evaluating the multispectral images and of the increasingly precise possibilities of modern word processors to deal with the complex architecture of layers, disegni, and the other physical complexities of the Herculaneum rolls. The importance of digital copies of the earlier disegni, of the online catalogue Chartes, and of the digital encoding of the Herculaneum texts (from the Thesaurus Herculanensium Voluminum to the Digital Corpus of Literary Papyri) are then highlighted by the author, who also mentions the most recent projects dealing with the digital treatment of the Herculaneum papyri: the linguistic annotation produced by the Grammatically Annotated Philodemus project, the text-image alignment developed by the Anagnosis project, and the editorial environment to be proposed by the current ERC GreekSchools project led by G. Ranocchia at the University of Pisa.[5] A reference should be added here to a particular software tool aimed at the computer-aided placement of sovrapposti and sottoposti, recently developed by Marzia D’Angelo and Federica Nicolardi.[6]

The volume ends with two case studies. The first (chapter 14) is intended to provide an example of papyrological reconstruction work. The title “Der Herkulanische Papyrologe bei der Arbeit” recalls in fact a famous lecture series by Eric G. Turner,[7] which addressed methodological issues in Papyrology by means of peculiar case studies. First, the steps of reconstructing a fragmentary papyrus text are visually described by Fleischer using sample German sentences, and then a more papyrological, theoretical discussion follows, which stresses the methodology of putting together multiple different sources (the original pieces, the disegni, the bi-dimensional multispectral images) in a comprehensive transcription that takes into account all of the physical peculiarities of the Herculaneum rolls. The second test case (chapter 15) deals with an example of improved textual reconstructions in the papyrus containing Philodemus’ so-called Index Academicorum (P.Herc. 1691/1021 & 164), in fact a volume of the large-scale treatise titled Index of the Philosophers, which is also a nice example of a ‘work in progress’, since it is preserved in a preliminary working version and a final copy. The text is the object of a new edition being prepared by Fleischer himself, who profited very much from the analysis of multispectral and hyperspectral images, as well as from a careful autopsy and the application of a new editorial system.

A final reflection (chapter 16) on the future of Herculaneum Papyrology summarizes the book, with a general stress on the new reading, reconstructing and editing technologies and a positive hope for forthcoming discoveries: “Wir dürfen hoffen – wenn nicht auf eine zweite Renaissance, so doch auf die Wiedergeburt vieler antiker Werke” (p. 124).

In conclusion, Fleischer’s monograph is to be greeted as an original way of approaching not only Herculaneum Papyrology, but also a Digital Papyrology intended not only as a body of helpful tools but also as a set of methodologies that can contribute to improving and developing the traditional scientific purposes of Papyrology.



[1] See N. Reggiani, Digital Papyrology I: Methods, Tools and Trends, De Gruyter, Berlin – Boston 2017; N. Reggiani, La papirologia digitale. Prospettiva storico-critica e sviluppi metodologici, Athenaeum, Parma 2019.

[2] See N. Reggiani, I rotoli di Ercolano, la papirologia virtuale e l’edizione critica digitale dei papiri: alcune riflessioni, in Tracing the Same Path. Tradizione e innovazione nella papirologia ercolanese tra Germania e Italia / Tradition und Fortschritt in der herkulanischen Papyrologie zwischen Deutschland und Italien, ed. by M. D’Angelo – H. Essler – F. Nicolardi, Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi “Marcello Gigante”, Naples 2021, 163-7.

[3] See for instance the very recent F. Longo Auricchio – G. Indelli – G. Leone – G. Del Mastro, La Villa dei Papiri. Una residenza antica e la sua biblioteca, Carocci, Rome 2020.

[4] For example, the mathematical reconstructions developed by H. Essler, Rekonstruktion von Papyrusrollen auf mathematischer Grundlage, “Cronache Ercolanesi” 38 (2008), 273-307 are repeatedly referred to.

[5] A small annotation: at p. 94 n. 210, when referring to the previously cited GreekSchools project, the author points to the preceding footnote 124 (p. 58), where the project is indeed mentioned, but a more correct reference is perhaps (also) to footnote 126 (p. 60), where the project is described in some details.

[6] M. D’Angelo, Verso un software per la ricostruzione dei papiri ercolanesi con stratigrafia complessa, “Cronache Ercolanesi” 50 (2020), 161-2; M. D’Angelo – F. Nicolardi, Dalla ricostruzione all’edizione dei papiri ercolanesi: problemi e proposte di presentazione e rappresentazione, in Tracing the Same Path (cited above, n. 2), 121-38.

[7] E.G. Turner, The Papyrologist at Work, Duke University, Durham NC 1973.