Ancient scrolls read from 2000 years ago

22 January 2015
Posted by Chris Smith.

Two thousand year old charred scrolls recovered from the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum are being read by scientists in Italy using X-ray beams.Herculaneum Scroll

The towns of Herculaneum, and nearby Pompei, were buried under metres of ash and rock by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. Subsequently excavated by archaeologists the sites have revealed a treasure-trove of beautifully-preserved artefacts offering an unprecedented glimpse into Roman life two thousand years ago.

Among the objects recovered were large numbers of hand-written scrolls. Unfortunately, the searing temperatures at the time of the eruption had reduced them to little more than carbon skeletons. Previously, unsuccessful attempts have been made to unwrap and reconstruct them. One archaeologist even developed a machine to unfurl the fragments onto sheets of animal intestine.

Now, writing in Nature Communications, Vito Mocella from the Italian National Research Council Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, has used Twenty-first Century science to peer inside the scrolls non-destructively and begin to decipher what scribes had jotted down two millenia previously.

The technique adopted by the Italian team involves using a beam of high-intensity X-rays to examine the scrolls layer-by-layer. Unlike a conventional X-ray, which relies on the principle that some structures - like bones - absorb more X-rays than others and this produces a pattern of lighter and darker areas that reveal details of the underlying structure, the new approach taken by the Italians compares how rapidly the X-rays pass through different parts of the material.

Bumps as tiny even as the blobs of ink a tenth of a millimetre thick on the surface of a sheet of papyrus slow down the passage of the X-rays, producing subtle - but detectable - signature variations in the emerging beam. It's known as "X-ray phase-contrast tomography" and can be used medically to produce detailed images of tissues.

Deployed - with enormous care - against one of the Roman scrolls, it's enabled the researchers to begin to read the formerly-unreadadable. Words written in Greek, in a range of hands, are visible.

What the scrolls say has yet to be determined, because the technique is time consuming and still needs optimising, but, despite being incinerated and buried for millenia, it's shedding new light on a major era in Humman history. Let's hope the scrolls are not just someone's shopping list!

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