Scientists Have Finally Found A Way To Read Ancient Scrolls Which Survived Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius overlooks the Bay of Naples. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Ancient Roman scrolls which survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius but are too fragile to unravel may finally be read using an imaging method.

The scrolls form part of the only library to have survived from the classical world and it is hoped that the method could be used to help decipher other unread scrolls from the same collection.

Hundreds of papyrus scrolls, buried by the 79AD Vesuvius eruption, were discovered 260 years ago in the library of the Villa dei Papiri, a huge home in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum.

Volcanic gas carbonised the scrolls making them fragile and brittle. Attempts to unravel and read them have either damaged or destroyed them.

Close up photograph of Herculaneum Papyrus scroll. The photographed section is 5cm high. Image: E. Brun

Vito Mocella and colleagues used X-ray phase contrast tomography to decipher the text in one of the scrolls.

This proved difficult as the carbonised papyrus scroll and the black charcoal ink used to write on it both absorb X-ray weakly.

X-ray phase contrast tomography, however, was used successfully to discriminate ink from papyrus, despite their similar chemical compositions.

The authors found that the handwriting style on the scroll is similar to that on another Herculaneum papyrus written by the philosopher and poet Philodemus.

They speculate that Philodemus may also have written the scroll they examined, perhaps somewhere in the second quarter of the first century BC.

The results of he study are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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