New X-Ray Technique Reads Letters From Damaged Herculaneum Scrolls

Posted on January 21, 2015

A new X-ray technique is providing hope that hundreds of damaged Herculaneum scrolls buried in ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius may one day be readable. The eruption is the same one that destroyed Pompeii. The scrolls are from a library believed to have existed in Herculaneum.

Attempts to unroll the damaged fragile scrolls in the past has not worked. The researched say the carbonized papyrus rolls are damaged or destroyed when trying to open them. The new X-ray technique can examine the scrolls without damaging them. Scientists led by Vito Mocella (Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy) and Dr Silvia Pani, an X-ray physicist at the University of Surrey, have been able to read letters from the scrolls for the first time using an advanced X-ray technique. The above image shows letters read from a scroll fragment using the technique.

Once perfected the method could lead to a way to read the scrolls which may contain lost works in Greek and Latin. BBC News reports that curved letters are currently easier to detect than square ones. Dr. Mocella tells the New York Times in an interview, "At least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally."

This video shows some raw footage of the scrolls and the results of the x-ray technique. Take a look:

A research paper on the X-ray phase-contrast tomography can be found here in the journal, Nature Communications.

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