New X-Ray Technique Deciphers Ancient Scrolls Burned By Mt. Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in A.D. 79 and destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried hundreds of papyrus rolls in villa in Herculaneum. These were discovered 260 years ago. The papyrus rolls are extremely fragile as they were carbonized, thus being easily damaged in the process of trying to unroll and read them.


New imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls. However, specialists were unable to view the carbon-based ink on these papyri even though they could penetrate the various layers of the spiral rolls.

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Cabonized papyrus roll. (Screenshot/YouTube)

But now, X-Ray phase contrast tomography enables letters inside the rolls to be read without unrolling  the papyri. It may now be possible to read many of these Herculaneum papyri, thus enhancing our knowledge of ancient Greek literature and philosophy.

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X-Rayed papyrus roll. (Screenshot/YouTube)

These charred papyri are a step closer to revealing their ancient secrets. While Pompeii was virtually obliterated by lava, Herculaneum was also leveled by a mudslide. But instead of burning the hoard of papyrus scrolls inside the villa, the outsides of the scrolls were instead carbonized. So while the outsides of the papyri were charred, the letters on the inside remained intact.

While some papyri have been unrolled and examined, the process was abandoned as it often destroyed the scrolls. This new technique has given scientists another way to peek inside the past.

The X-Ray phase contrast tomography obtains 3-D scans of the insides of the scrolls. The ink was not absorbed by the papyrus, but stayed on the surface, allowing the technique to read these letters.

Although researchers have only deciphered a few letters so far, they are hoping to discover both original and lost Epicurean texts. it is believed the villa the scrolls were discovered in belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

If they’re able to pull it off, it has the potential to revolutionize the study of the ancient world,

Jack Mitchell, a professor of Classics at Dalhousie University, told The Toronto Star.

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