New Technology Could Reveal Secrets in 2,000 Year Old Scrolls

Hundreds of ancient papyrus scrolls that were buried nearly 2,000 years ago after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius could finally be read, thanks to a new x-ray technique. herculeanum-text

The method can be used to decipher the charred texts that were found in the ancient town of Herculaneum without having to unroll them, which could damage them beyond repair, scientists say. If the new method works, it could reveal the secrets of one of the few intact ancient libraries , the researchers said.

Both the Roman city of Pompeii and the nearby, wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum were wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing thousands of people and covering fine villas in ash and lava.

In the 1750s, workers uncovered a library in a villa thought to be the home of a Roman statesman. The site, known as the Villa of the Papyri, contained nearly 2,000 ancient papyrus scrolls that had been charred by the volcanic heat. Since then, historians have tried many methods for reading the damaged scrolls. 

scrolls-herculaneum

From the few scrolls that could be unrolled and deciphered, historians determined that the library was filled mainly with writings on Epicurean philosophy — a school of thought that holds, among other things, that the goal of human life is happiness, characterized by the absence of pain and mental strife — and was part of the collection of a prolific writer named Philodemus.

Though some of the methods used to unroll the scrolls were fairly successful, most wound up damaging the fragile documents.

Historians decided that the potential for damage was too great, and thus locked the remaining scrolls, still rolled up, in the National Library of Naples in Italy. Recently, the team began to work with x-ray phase-contrast tomography. Because the letters on the papyrus are slightly raised in height, the waves of X-rays that hit the letters would be reflected back with a slightly shifted phase, compared with the waves that hit the underlying material. By measuring this phase difference, the team was able to reproduce the shape of the letters inside the rolled scrolls.

So far, the team has analyzed six scrolls that were given to Napoleon Bonaparte as gifts and are now housed at the French Institute in Paris. They have deciphered some of the Greek letters and words written inside the scrolls. Still, deciphering the words in the innermost layers was extremely challenging, the authors wrote in their paper.

The texts on the scrolls are unlikely to yield earth-shattering insights, given how many of the other scrolls have been deciphered, Moss said. But the new technique holds promise for other burnt papyri as well.

“Most people now believe there is a whole other library under there in that Villa of the Papyri,” Moss told Live Science. That’s because, in the Roman world, most libraries held all the Greek treatises in one section and all the Latin books in another, she said.

Archaeologists have a good idea of where the Latin library may be, but so far, they’ve found no trace of the Latin texts, in part because noxious gases released from the ground make the site difficult to excavate. But if they do find the hidden library, this new technique could become very useful there, Moss said.

Read more from LiveScience.

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