Sight Unseen: New Tech and Old Texts

We have a seemingly unstoppable urge to uncover every shadowed corner of our past. It takes us to tombs long thought lost, the sea floor, and other extreme environments. Our ever-expanding mastery over land, air, and sea via technology means that true challenges to this urge are growing few and far between. The Herculaneum scrolls are clearly one such challenge. But whatever their ultimate fate, Seales has greater hopes for the technical side of his profession more broadly. One of the most persistent problems with the digital examination of manuscripts is the fact that, as noted, previous ages had recourse to means of inquiry that very often damaged the materials they were meant to expose. The problems with machine learning that initially propelled Seales into visualization, he says, are not now nearly as fearsome as they used to be. Great strides have been made since the 1980s on questions of artificial intelligence, which puts within the realm of possibility, according to Seales, technology that might allow the recovery of even the most physically fragmented texts. He also pointed out a belief, held by some scholars, that the discoveries in Piso’s villa represent less than half of the actual library, and that if excavations were to be extended, another 2,000 volumes might lie within reach. So stay tuned . . .