Plato’s Burial Place and Details of His Last Night Revealed in Carbonised Scroll From Herculaneum

Plato’s Burial Place and Details of His Last Night Revealed in Carbonised Scroll From Herculaneum

The Greek philosopher Plato—Socrates’ student and Aristotle’s teacher—died nearly 2,400 years ago, having produced a voluminous amount of writing on political philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, and more (he came up with Atlantis!). This week, researchers announced that they found the burial place of the famous philosopher, as well as details of his final moments, in a near-2,000-year-old document carbonized by an ancient volcanic eruption.

Mount Vesuvius blew its top 1,945 years ago, burying the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash and and freezing their populations in time. At Herculaneum, a villa filled with documents—now known as the Villa of the Papyri—was buried, and its contents carbonized.

Now, researchers with the Greek Schools research project used optical coherence tomography and infrared hyperspectral imaging to scan the characters locked away in the carbonized scroll and have identified about 1,000 words so far, revealing details of Plato’s final days and death.

Plato, as imaged in Raphael’s ‘’The School of Athens.’

The papyrus was inked by Philodemus of Gadara, a Herculaneum-based poet and philosopher. Researchers knew that Plato was buried on the grounds of the Academy—the academic school he founded in Athens—but his precise resting place was unknown. According to Graziano Ranocchia, a papyrologist at the University of Pisa and the project’s lead researcher, the texts suggested that Plato was buried in a private garden near the Academy’s shrine to the muses. The Academy was destroyed by the Roman general Sulla some 300 years later, and its archaeological remains are now located in Akadimia Platonos, a neighborhood in Athens about two miles from the Acropolis.

Other details from the recently translated text offered different dates for when Plato was sold into slavery—either in 404 BCE or 399 BCE, rather than 387 BCE. The scroll also discussed Plato’s final night: “He was running a high fever and was bothered by the music they were playing,” Ranocchia said, in an ANSA release.

Ranocchia added that a musician from Thrace was playing the flute, to help ease the old philosopher’s final hours, but Plato didn’t like the music. He told the musician she had a “scant sense of rhythm”—if it were 2,400 years later Plato could’ve just opted for Pandora.

Top to bottom: A reference photograph of delta symbols, an integral texture image, and a network-generated carbon ink prediction image.

Artificial intelligence is helping researchers digitally unravel the scrolls, which are generally too fragile to physically open. Early attempts to unwrap the scrolls—found by a farmworker in 1750—caused their destruction. The contents of those scrolls, unfortunately, are lost to time. Last year, the word “purple” was found and translated from an unopened papyrus scroll for the first time, netting its finder $US40,000.

Virtual unwrapping is happening elsewhere, too. In 2015, a University of Kentucky team used X-ray tomography and computer vision—a field of artificial intelligence that allows machines to “see,” or extract information from visual data—to read a Dead Sea scroll without opening it.

Previous digital unravelling of the Herculaneum scrolls used neural networks to identify the presence of ink in the scrolls. As computer vision and other artificial intelligence technologies improve, researchers will be able to peer deeper into these fragile documents non-invasively. Not only will we read more about the ancient past, but the documents will be preserved for when the next generation of imaging techniques come along.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

It’s the most popular NBN speed in Australia for a reason. Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.