Mystery of Plato’s final resting place solved after ‘bionic eye’ penetrates 2,000-year-old scroll

A statue of Plato outside his academy in Athens
A statue of Plato outside his academy in Athens - Jon Hicks/Stone RF

The mystery of Plato’s final resting place appears to have been solved after advanced scanning techniques dubbed a “bionic eye” were able to penetrate a 2,000-year-old carbonised scroll.

Often hailed as the greatest philosopher who ever lived, conflicting accounts exist over Plato’s final years and death around 348 BC.

However, new research claims to have uncovered Plato’s exact burial site: in the garden of his academy in Athens, near to a sacred shrine.

The 'bionic eye' used to penetrate the 2,000-year-old scroll
The 'bionic eye' used to penetrate the 2,000-year-old scroll

The location was recorded in a text by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, among thousands of ancient texts in the Roman town of Herculaneum that were damaged after nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.

A team of experts were able to uncover passages of The History of the Academy written by Philodemus which described the school Plato set up in his name and where he tutored his most famous student, Aristotle.

Costanza Miliani, the director of the Institute of Heritage Science at Italy’s National Research Council, told The Times: “Carbon-based ink was used to write on the scrolls, which were basically themselves turned to carbon by the eruption, making them very difficult to read.”

Although most of this particular document had previously been read following an effort to decipher it in 1991, Ms Miliani’s team was able to uncover about 30 per cent more of the carbonised papyrus.

They used infrared and X-ray scanners, described as a “bionic eye”, to decipher more than 1,000 words of The History of the Academy which were previously illegible.

Infrared scans are helping researchers to decipher texts
Infrared and X-ray scanners have deciphered more than 1,000 words of the History of the Academy document that were previously illegible. - D.P. Pavone/D.P. Pavone

It has made locating Plato’s exact burial site possible for the first time, according to Prof Graziano Ranocchia, who presented the results of the project.

“We knew Plato was buried at the academy, which was very large, 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,” he said.

The text also suggests that the previously held account of Plato’s capture by Dionysius, the ruler of Syracuse who was thought to have sold him into slavery around 387 BC, may not be accurate.

In fact, Prof Ranocchia says that by Philodemus’ account, “it appears that Plato was sold as a slave as early as in 404 BC, when the Spartans conquered Aegina, or, alternatively, in 399 BC, immediately after the death of Socrates”.

The History of the Academy is among the collection of texts found buried inside a villa thought to belong to Julius Caesar’s son-in-law and known as the Herculaneum Papyri.

It constitutes the largest surviving library from the Greco-Roman world, and most of what has proven legible has been attributed to Philodemus.

Thousands of manuscripts – possibly including works by Aeschylus, Sappho, or even texts about the early years of Christianity – were deemed irreparably damaged but classicists hope breakthroughs in technology could uncover fresh revelations.

The effort to read the papyri started three years ago and will be completed in 2026.

Prof Ranocchia said the team expects “to make real progress” as it turns its “bionic eye” on other fragments of text.

Earlier this year, a group of university students were also able to decipher some charred texts among the Herculaneum papyri using artificial intelligence.

While much of Plato’s work has survived in the intervening millennia since his death, it has been impossible to produce a complete biography of his life.

He was taught by Socrates, who serves as a narrator in Plato’s dialogues, texts which are credited with the development of metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics in Western philosophy.