Tales From The Crypt Page 2

Poring over the scraps in the stifling heat of a Neapolitan summer, with every breath of air excluded from the reading room lest it blow away a feather of papyrus, is a formidable endurance test. Deciphering even one letter under the microscope is an achievement. Janko recalls spending 10 minutes trying to make out the faintest hint of the letters in an almost entirely obscured patch of scroll before realizing he was looking at it upside down. Right side up, it was scarcely more forthcoming.

Studies are often undertaken with partners in order to reduce self-delusion; otherwise, the word you want to see - the word you expect - forces itself onto the Rorschach's cradle of burnt fibers. "You come up with your theory about what letters are there," says Janko, "and then you say, 'The letter after the alpha - what do you see there?' and the person says, 'I see a vertical line then a line going across at the top,' and you say, 'Which letters do you think it could be?' and the person says 'Gamma or tau,' and you say, 'Good, that's what I thought, and I think it's tau, don't you?' and so on."

Not only are the letters somewhere between difficult and impossible to read, but the eye must be constantly aware of the possibility that some are in the wrong place. The process of unrolling the petrified scrolls does not always produce a single layer of papyrus; some patches end up inadvertently detached: What looks like one piece of text may have an island of another layered over it or be pierced by holes that reveal other words beneath. The bumps and potholes may be only a fraction of a millimeter in height or depth, but they can break the axles of a heavily freighted interpretation just like that. Such challenges, Janko says, have made him see the simple act of reading in a new way. The ideas and their physical representation become entwined, impressed on one another, indistinguishable.

The reason Steve Booras is rushing us through the library is that a ceremony is about to begin, and we don't know where. We retrace our steps and eventually find our way to the director's office, where various dignitaries are gathering. From there, we move on to the ceremony itself. It takes place on one of the lower floors in a richly ornamented, high-ceilinged, gallery-girdled chamber as opulent as the reading room is austere. The event is the rededication of the library's papyrus research center in honor of Marcello Gigante, a local professor who devoted much of his life to the enigmatic scrolls.

The ceremony begins with the presentation of a small plaque to the contingent from BYU. Booras and his colleague Roger MacFarlane, a younger man in a seersucker jacket and a natty bow tie, step up to receive it almost bashfully. On a lectern to one side of the room sits a larger plaque the visitors presented to the library earlier. It displays two different pictures of the same scrap of papyrus. One shows neat lines of Greek lettering. The other is utterly illegible, a ground zero of text. The difference between them is Steve Booras' camera.

Booras and his team have recorded images of every piece of Herculaneum papyrus in the library: 25,000 images on 345 CDs. The images were made with a high-quality digital camera. More important, most of them were also made with infrared filters. On a legible papyrus seen under normal light, the ink appears black because it absorbs the light; the papyrus reflects it. The carbonized fibers of the Herculaneum scrolls, however, absorb light just as well as the ink does, making the background a distinctly low-contrast black. But the papyrus does not absorb infrared wavelengths quite as readily; in the infrared, there is still contrast.

Scholars have used infrared film to tease details out of documents since the '30s. But in the mid-1990s, Gregory Bearman, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, advanced the practice by converting a digital camera that was able to work in many different wavelengths - a multispectral imager - to the same purpose. It soon started producing results, and Bearman was happy to turn his technology from planets to parchment: "Every space instrument I've ever been closely associated with," he says somewhat ruefully, "has been canceled."

In his first application of the technology, Bearman created images of the Genesis Apocryphon, one of the most dilapidated of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and added 20 percent to the known text by revealing letters that were illegible under visible light. This caught the attention of a small team of Mormons working on a CD-ROM version of the scrolls that would include both images and text. One of them was Booras. A software tester at nearby WordPerfect, Booras had for years been using his computer skills to help out with BYU projects. Charitable donations - some of it from Alan Ashton, a former BYU professor and cofounder of WordPerfect - made it possible for Booras to apply digital technologies to ancient texts full-time.

In 1998, using Bearman's advances, Booras presented pictures of burned scrolls from a monastery church in Jordan to an international conference on papyrology in Italy. Marcello Gigante was in the audience and immediately saw that the multispectral technique could be applied to the Herculaneum scrolls. If Booras was in the business of reading unreadable papyruses, Gigante told him, he should come to Naples. They had the biggest supply of them in the world.

And so Booras spent a couple of years sifting through the almost-ashes in Naples, examining the 4,400 fragments framed in glass. The camera's tunable filter allowed him to sample dozens of narrow bands of visible and invisible spectrum, looking for the band that would produce the clearest text. After checking various wavelengths, he found that for most of the fragments a single pass in the 950-nanometer band provided good imagery, though in some cases he used more wavelengths to achieve the best possible definition. A few fragments actually produced their best images in a narrow band of green.