Scientists Use X-Rays to Read Ancient Scrolls Charred by Mount Vesuvius

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Talk about reading between the lines! Scientists wielding X-rays say they can, for the first time, read words inside the charred, rolled-up scrolls that survived the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius nearly two millenniums ago.

The findings, described in the journal Nature Communications, give hope to researchers who have until now been unable to read these delicate scrolls without serious risk of destroying them.

The scrolls come from a library in Herculaneum, one of several Roman towns that, along with Pompeii, was destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. This library, a small room in a large villa, held hundreds of handwritten papyrus scrolls that had been carbonized from a furnace-like blast of 608-degree-Fahrenheit gas produced by the volcano.

“This rich book collection, consisting principally of Epicurean philosophical texts, is a unique cultural treasure, as it is the only ancient library to survive together with its books,” the study authors wrote. “The texts preserved in these papyri, now mainly stored in the Officina dei Papiri in the National Library of Naples, had been unknown to scholars before the discovery of the Herculaneum library, since they had not been copied and recopied in late Antiquity, the middle ages and Renaissance.”

So researchers have tried every which way to read these rare and valuable scrolls, which could open a singular window into a lost literary past. The problem is, these scrolls are so delicate that it’s nearly impossible to unroll them without harming them. That hasn’t kept other researchers from trying, however – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.

“Different opening techniques, all less effective, have been tried over the years until the so-called ‘Oslo method’ was applied in the 1980s on two Herculaneum scrolls now in Paris with problematic results, since the method required the rolls to be picked apart into small pieces,” the study authors wrote. (Yikes.)

Any further attempts to physically open these scrolls were called off since then, they said, “because an excessive percentage of these ancient texts was irretrievably lost by the application of such methods.”

This is where a technique like X-ray computed tomography, which could penetrate the rolled scrolls, would come in handy. The problem is, the ancient writers used ink made of carbon pulled from smoke residue. And because the papyrus had been carbonized from the blazing heat, both paper and ink are made of roughly the same stuff. Because the soot-based ink and baked paper have about the same density, until now it’s been practically impossible to tell ink and paper apart.

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SOURCE: LA Times
Amina Khan