This Newly Deciphered Papyrus Scroll Reveals the Location of Plato’s Grave

The mysterious site is mentioned in a text buried by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption 2,000 years ago

The Greek philosopher Plato was a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle. Leonidas Drosis via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Thanks to an ancient text and specialized scanning technology, researchers say they have solved the mystery of Plato’s burial place: The Greek philosopher was interred in the garden of his Athens academy, where he once tutored a young Aristotle.

“We knew Plato was buried at the academy, which was very large,” says Graziano Ranocchia, a philosopher at the University of Pisa who is leading the research, per the London Times’ Tom Kington. “But thanks to the scans, we now know he was buried in a garden in a private area, near the sacred shrine to the muses.”

Some 2,000 years ago, the famous philosopher’s burial was recorded on a papyrus scroll housed in the Roman city of Herculaneum, according to a statement from Italy’s National Research Council. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., famously extinguishing the town of Pompeii to its southeast, it also destroyed Herculaneum, located at the volcano’s western base. A villa in the city—possibly belonging to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law—was full of scrolls, and while the volcano’s blast damaged and buried the papyri, it didn’t destroy them.

Researchers only discovered the trove of texts in the mid-18th century. Now known as the Herculaneum scrolls, they are “the only large-scale library from the classical world that has survived in its entirety,” as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) writes.

This mosaic in Pompeii depicts Plato teaching students at his Athens academy. Naples National Archaeological Museum, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Following the discovery, historians tried unrolling some of the scrolls on various occasions over the years. However, such attempts proved disastrous, “turning the coal-like relics to dust,” per NEH. For this reason, none of the papyri have been physically opened since the 19th century.

Recent breakthroughs have allowed researchers to read the fragile texts without touching them. One of those breakthroughs came earlier this year, when a trio of students used artificial intelligence to decipher more than 2,000 characters from one of the scrolls.

Now, a separate team has used infrared and X-ray scanners—a technique researchers call a “bionic eye”—to read over 1,000 new words on one of the Herculaneum papyri: the History of the Academy.

Written by philosopher Philodemus, the History of the Academy describes the school Plato founded in Athens in the fourth century B.C.E. Like the other Herculaneum scrolls, the History was written with carbon-based ink. They were “basically themselves turned to carbon by the eruption, making them very difficult to read,” as Costanza Miliani, who leads the Institute of Heritage Science at Italy’s National Research Council, tells the Times.

Some of the History of the Academy had been deciphered several decades ago—but with the aid of the “bionic eye,” Miliani’s team was recently able to read about 30 percent more of it, leading to several notable discoveries, including the location of Plato’s tomb.

Earlier this year, three students used artificial intelligence to decipher passages from one of the Herculaneum scrolls. Vesuvius Challenge

Born in Athens around 427 B.C.E., Plato studied philosophy under Socrates. After his teacher’s death, Plato traveled to Italy, and while staying in Syracuse, on the coast of Sicily, the philosopher was captured and enslaved by the city’s ruler. As the Telegraph’s Rozina Sabur reports, the newly deciphered text presents a correction to this debated narrative: While Plato was previously thought to have been captured in 387 B.C.E., Philodemus’ text suggests this occurred much earlier.

“It appears that Plato was sold as a slave as early as in 404 B.C.E., when the Spartans conquered Aegina, or, alternatively, in 399 B.C.E., immediately after the death of Socrates,” says Ranocchia, per the Telegraph.

Plato eventually returned to Athens, where he founded the academy described in the scroll. He was buried in the garden on the school’s grounds when he died in 348 or 347 B.C.E.

Hundreds of Herculaneum scrolls have yet to be read, and some experts think even more are still buried in the ancient city, “offering the prospect of the discovery of lost plays by Sophocles and tracts by Aristotle,” per the Times.

“[Soon], we should be able to read more of texts written on the back of scrolls or on overlapping layers which stuck together during unrolling,” Ranocchia tells the Times. “We are now working on works about the Stoics, the Socratics, the Pythagoreans and the Epicureans and expect to make real progress.”

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