Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU)

Texts from the Ashes

New Philology Center Leads the Digital Humanities
Autor: Gunnar Bartsch,

He was a poet, scholar, and librarian in the legendary library of Alexandria: Kallimachos of Cyrene was born around 305 BC in Cyrene and died around 240 BC in Alexandria. He is said to have written around 800 books—that is, ancient papyrus scrolls—including several encyclopedias, numerous works of literary criticism, poems, and stories.

As a librarian, Kallimachos was the first person to systematize the literature of his time. His most important prose work was a 120-volume catalog of authors in which he listed a short biography and a catalog of works for a selection of Greek authors from the Library of Alexandria, thus creating the world's first "scientific" library catalog. However, most of his works have succumbed to time, with only fragments remaining.

A typical example of a fragment of a papyrus scroll from the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum.
Dr. Holger Essler heads the Thesaurus Herculanensium Voluminum project at the University of Würzburg.

Kallimachos: The New Center for Philology and Digitality

Seen in this light, the name “Kallimachos” fits perfectly with the new €15 million Center for Philology and Digitality at the University of Würzburg (JMU), which aims to bridge the gap between the humanities, computer science, and the digital humanities.

With a new building currently under construction at the Hubland campus, which will accommodate up to 100 people and include a digital lab, research rooms, and lecture halls, the new Center represents "a major hub for the further development of research in the humanities in the digital age," says Dr. Holger Essler, research associate at the Institute for Classical Philology at JMU and part-time professor at the University of Venice.

This is especially the case for those working in the field of ancient languages. The project “Thesaurus Herculanensium Voluminum,” led by Essler in collaboration with the Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi in Naples, aims to develop a database that brings together all existing transcriptions of papyri found in a buried villa in Herculaneum, making them searchable and comparable.

What sounds like an almost normal digital project is in fact the result of centuries of painstaking work that demands endless patience and a high degree of forensic-like investigation and interpretation.
Dr. Holger Essler, Research Associate, Institute for Classical Philology, JMU Würzburg

Interpreting Papyrus Scrolls Buried by the Eruption of Mt Vesuvius

The reason for this toil lies in the nature of the papyri discovered during excavation work between 1752 and 1754 in Herculaneum at the "Villa dei Papiri." The very fact that they still exist today is a lucky coincidence. "When Vesuvius erupted in 79 BC, Herculaneum was hit by the spurs of several pyroclastic flows. Dense and extremely hot waves of ash, gas, and rock raced over the city, leaving it buried under meters of pyroclastic rock," says Essler.

The papyrus scrolls were stored in the private library of a wealthy Roman, with temperatures prevailing to keep the scrolls carbonized so that they did not burn. The workers who first discovered them therefore initially mistook them for coal briquettes or roots. It was only when one of them fell and broke apart that they discovered writing on the fragments, leading to further examination.

This is how the Villa dei Papiri might have looked before its destruction.

Archaeologists have since recovered around 1,000 scrolls from the villa. "The majority of these texts are written in Greek, but more and more Latin texts are now being added," says Essler. Today, 122 Latin scrolls are known of. One of them describes the Battle of Actium during which Octavianus, who later became Emperor Augustus, defeated his opponent Marcus Antonius on 2 September 31 BC. Other scrolls contain legal texts and historical writings.

Infrared Light and Multispectral Imaging Give New Textual Insights

The charred papyrus scrolls can’t simply be unrolled and read. Many of them have broken into numerous fragments as a result of earlier unrolling attempts, with the individual layers partially caked together and difficult to separate. It is therefore often unclear if a particular text fragment belongs at the beginning, middle, or end of the narrative. Equally difficult is discerning which passage preceded the text fragment and which followed it—if these passages have even survived.

The fact that new pieces of text can be deciphered today is mainly due to the use of state-of-the-art technology. Multispectral and hyperspectral imaging make ink traces visible that had previously remained hidden even from expert eyes. Several teams work on methods for virtually unwrapping those scrolls that have resisted—or escaped—mechanical procedures. But even simply reading the unrolled fragments requires a lot of intuition and interpretation. "Not every dark trace belongs to a character; it can also simply be a papyrus fiber," says Essler.

In the 18th century, scientists documented their findings on copper engravings.
With the help of the latest technology, scientists create so-called hyperspectral images, which significantly improve the readability of a text.

Because these papyri are so poorly preserved and the texts are difficult to recognize, the scrolls have been re-read again and again over the course of time. The first edition dates from 1793 and is available in scanned digital form. Other editions have not been digitalized and can only be consulted in a manuscript reading room, which is difficult due to the current Corona restrictions. For the period from 1920 to 2000, there is a big gap as far as digitalization is concerned.

"With our project, we want to capture all texts and editions—95 per cent of which has already been achieved," says Essler. For the first time, this new digital version allows interested parties to have an overview of all texts in their entirety. In addition, new findings and translations can easily be included. "This makes the digital text the most up to date version and thus the standard reference," says the classical philologist.

International Philology Summer School

At the Würzburg Center for Epicurean Studies

As a department of the Würzburg Center for Epicurean Studies, Herculean papyrology plays an important role in both research and teaching at Würzburg. For example, the staff of the Institute for Classical Philology are working on an edition of several Herculean papyri. And Herculean papyrology is a regular part of the teaching program at Würzburg, which is the only university in Germany to host courses on the subject.

At the international Summer Schools organized by the Center for Epicurean Studies every two years, the texts from Herculaneum are often the main focus. The next Summer School will take place from 21 to 25 February 2022.

Würzburg Center for Epicurean Studies
Research Project "Thesaurus Herculanensium Voluminum"

Artificial Intelligence in the Digital Humanities

Of course, it doesn't stop at just text entry. The next step is an automated grammatical and stylistic analysis of the texts with the help of artificial intelligence. This technology can, for example, examine newly discovered texts to see if a previously known author could have written them. After analyzing sentence structure, syntax, and word order and comparing them with the works of known authors, the software can make suggestions about authorship.

This form of artificial intelligence is trained on the existing canon of Greek texts. "Together with the numerous existing translations into many languages, this allows a language model to be created," explains Essler. AI, applied to fragmentary texts, can thus fill in the gaps because it knows which words are frequently found together. This facilitates the reconstruction of the original text enormously.

On a hyperspectral image of the same sheet again, the letters are even more legible and in many places can even be read.
Photo: Courtesy of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III, Napoli, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche.
Representation of a papyrus fragment in the digital edition.

"In the case of the papyri from Herculaneum, we work with 2,000-year-old texts in various stages of completion," he says. You never get that close to an ancient author otherwise. As a rule, Greek and Latin scholars work with copies from the 8th century at best. As a philologist, he could not wish for more.

Yet despite the utmost care in handling them, the papyri are gradually crumbling. "So what I document today may be the only and last time it can be read," says Essler. With his work, he can thus contribute to the permanent preservation of these sources.

Center for Philology and Digitality "Kallimachos"

Construction of the new Center for Philology and Digitality “Kallimachos” began on the 23 April 2020. After its completion in 2023, it will host numerous chairs and research projects, with the aim of bringing together knowledge from different humanities disciplines and areas of research within the field of informatics. This interdisciplinary orientation is also reflected in the composition of the directorate, which is composed of representatives from musicology, philosophy, computer science, computer philology, and literary studies.


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