Herculaneum Papyri before Unrolling

An unopened papyrus roll from Herculaneum. Many such rolls, mostly those less tightly stuck together than this example, were taken apart with greater or lesser success in the later 18th and 19th centuries. Their outer layers were cut off to expose the central windings, which were often less badly damaged than the exterior portions and could be unrolled on Piaggio's machine (pictured below). Each roll, or each of the pieces into which they had fallen or been cut by ca. 1806 was given an inventory number: P(apyrus) Herc(ulanensis) 1234. Our task now is to discover to which originally whole roll each of the inventoried pieces belongs, and then to determine its place in that original roll.

Six papyrus rolls compressed into one lump by the weight of debris in the Villa.

The end of a carbonized papyrus roll with small umbilicus, the central stick around which the papyrus was wound.

Pieces of a small, flat umbilicus (ca. 1 cm. in width)

Piece of a large umbilicus (ca. 2 cm. in diameter).

The machine invented by Fr. Antonio Piaggio in 1756 for unrolling papyri. A papyrus roll is visible on the support at the bottom of the machine; its leading edge is pierced by silk threads which were attached to the screws at the top of the apparatus. As the edge of the papyrus was allowed slowly to separate from the layers of papyrus beneath it, the threads could be tightened so as to take up slack and keep a light and easily regulated pull on the papyrus' edge. The papyrus would unroll more or less continuously from the outside of the center of the roll (the midollo or 'marrow'). The layers of a piece cut off from one side of a roll (a scorza or 'bark') would come off separately onto the membranous strips coated with glue which would serve as a backing and keep the pieces of papyrus from further disintegration.

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    Photographs by David Blank, reproduced by permission of the Biblioteca Nazionale "Vittorio Emmanuele" di Napoli; further reproduction without the permission of the library is prohibited.