Ackermann’s Repository of Arts/Series 1/Volume 1/January 1809/Apparatus used for unrolling Papyri

ARA 1809 V01 D032 Apparatus used to unroll the Herculenean papyri.jpg



The discovery of a considerable number of ancient manuscripts among the ruins of Herculaneum, it the foot of Mount Vesuvius, was hailed at the time by every lover of antiquity throughout Europe, as an event which promised to add to our classic literature many an author whose works might hitherto have been unknown, or, if known, lamented as lost; or at least to afford the means of supplying the chasms with which a barbarous age had handed us some of the most invaluable remains of the learning of Rome and Greece. Unfortunately, these fond hopes have to this day remained disappointed. The progress made in unrolling them, although perhaps commensurate with the difficulty of the task, has hitherto been insignificant; and the emigration of the court of Naples to Sicily, with, as I am credibly informed, the most perfect part of the papyri, is not calculated to encourage any very sanguine expectations.

As, however, a few of the best preserved rolls are at this moment in England, and in the possession of an august personage, whose love for literature will not suffer such a treasure long to lay dormant, I conceive it may be acceptable to the classic scholar, to know the method which has been adopted at Portici for unfolding their contents. That process certainly is of the most tedious nature, but, as yet, no other has been successfully attempted; and when it is considered, that any new mode can only be tried on an original and perhaps inestimable manuscript, and that such a trial may possibly cause the irrecoverable destruction of the very treasure we arc in search of, we shall naturally be induced to use the utmost deliberation before we venture on an innovation attended with such manifest danger. A precipitate experiment with steam upon one of the rolls now in England has at once annihilated its substance, by destroying in the space of two minutes the little cohesion of texture which it had possessed before.

Previously to my entering upon the detail of the machinery used for unrolling the manuscripts, it maybe necessary to premise, that, from the effects of volcanic heat, they are reduced to a perfect coal, liable to be crumbled into a black dust by a very feeble pressure of the fingers, such as might be the state of a tight roll of paper after being exposed to the action of an heated oven, without being absolutely ignited: with this favourable difference, however, that, instead of paper, they had been written on papyrus, a substance much stronger and glutinous than I our present writing-paper. They had, like all books of that age, been rolled up with the writing inwards, divided into rectangular spaces, much in the manner of the pages of modern books.

As the different lamina of which the roll is composed, would break off with the slightest touch, a fresh back is successively formed by the application of gold-beaters’ skin affixed with gum-water. But such is the damaged state of the material, that without using very minute patches of gold-beaters’ skin (generally not exceeding the size of a common pea), an upper stratum would often be glued to one or more under ones, through the little holes or breaks which sometimes penetrate several of the lamina. But in order to render myself as intelligible as possible, I beg leave to refer the reader to the annexed drawing, with its accompanying scale.

A B C D is a wooden frame which may be placed on a common table.
f f Two brass rods, supporting
e e Two brass rests in the shape of half-moons. On these rests
MM The manuscript is placed, with
g g, some raw cotton, to guard it from being injured by the contact of the metal.
h h h is so much of the manuscript roll as has already been furnished with a fresh back of patches of gold-beaters’ skin.
As soon as a sufficient extent of back is thus secured,
l l l, silk strings, arc fastened to the ends by means of dissolved gum Arabic. These strings are suspended from
ik ik ik, a row of pegs (like those of a violin) going through
o o, an opening in the top of the frame.

In proportion as the laborious operation of forming a new back proceeds, the work is gently and progressively wound up by turning the pegs, until one entire page is thus unfolded, which is forthwith separated from the roll and spread on a flat board or frame. A draughtsman, unacquainted with (he language of the manuscript, makes a faithful fac-simile of it, with all its chasms, blemishes, or irregularities. The taking of this copy is no less a work of extreme patience and nicety, as it is only by a particular reflection of light, that the characters, whose black colour differs very little from that of the carbonized papyrus, can be distinguished. The fac-simile is next handed to an antiquarian, who separates the words and sentences, supplies any hiatus, and otherwise endeavours to restore the sense of the original. By a like process the succeeding pages are unrolled and deciphered, if I may be allowed to use the expression, until the work is completed. The whole is afterwards published, both in letter-press and correct engravings of each page, at the expence of the government.

In this tedious and costly manner, one work (a treatise of Philodemus on the power of music) has been recovered and published. Unfortunately, it was both the first and last with which the lovers of ancient literature have been gratified; and the contents of even this were far from compensating for either the trouble or expence bestowed upon it. Some years ago, the hopes of the learned were revived by the mission of a literary gentleman from England to Naples, for the express purpose of superintending the establishment of Portici, which, by permission of the court of Naples, he actually conducted for a considerable time previous to the invasion of the French. But hitherto none of the fruits of his labour have met the public eye, although the expectations of the classic scholar were from time to time kept alive by notices of that gentleman’s progress, inserted in some of our periodical journals.

I cannot close this article without expressing a hope, that the manuscripts now in England will ere long meet investigation, confident as I am, that the ingenuity of our English artists will be able to suggest a more expeditious process for unrolling them, than the one above detailed; and that, if the task were attended with success in this country, the court of Palermo might be prevailed upon to furnish a succession of new materials to enrich our stores of classic literature.