X-ray method helps decipher ancient scrolls

This papyrus scroll survived the destruction of Herculaneum in 79 A.D. Thanks to recent tech, researchers may be able to decipher it soon.

Story highlights

  • X-ray technique used in medicine helps reveal ancient writing
  • Work on Herculaneum scrolls has promise for scholars

(CNN)In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Almost 2,000 years later, researchers may be on the brink of reading some of the charred scrolls damaged in the eruption.
The scrolls, which were buried in a Herculaneum library and excavated 260 years ago, are easily damaged or destroyed by unwrapping, so researchers have been unable to read them without risk.
    But by using X-ray phase contrast tomography -- a 3-D technique used in medicine for soft biological tissue -- they have been able to reveal writing on the tightly wrapped scrolls without unrolling them, wrote a team led by Vito Mocella of the Naples-based Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems of the National Council of Research.
    Their research was described in the journal Nature Communications.
    "This attempt opens up new opportunities to read many Herculaneum papyri, which are still rolled up, thus enhancing our knowledge of ancient Greek literature and philosophy," they wrote.
    The Herculaneum library, which was uncovered in the 1750s, is the only ancient library to survive with its books, the researchers point out. The scrolls are primarily philosophical texts.
    The team looked at two scrolls given to Napoleon in 1802, burnt by volcanic gases reaching about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, and were able to discern a handful of Greek letters through the X-ray technology.
    Though difficult to make out, "the letters are there in relief, because the ink is still on the top (of the papyrus)," Mocella told the BBC.
    There's still a long way to go to completely read the texts of the scrolls, but scholars are optimistic. One of them, the University of Michigan's Richard Janko, told The New York Times we might find works thought lost to history.
    "This technology, when perfected, does open the way to rediscovering a lot more ancient literature," he said.