X-Rays Reveal Contents of Ancient Scrolls Buried by Mt. Vesuvius

By Carl Engelking | January 22, 2015 12:13 pm
An ancient scroll being scanned. Image courtesy University of Kentucky

An ancient scroll being scanned. Image courtesy University of Kentucky

Scientists are proving you can judge a “book” without ever cracking open the cover.

And by book, we mean a 2,000-year-old scroll buried after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Over 260 years ago, archaeologists discovered hundreds of ancient scrolls left behind in an ancient library in Herculaneum, which was covered in volcanic material after the infamous eruption in 79 A.D. Unfortunately, these charred scrolls are next to impossible to open without destroying them, leaving their contents largely a mystery. But a new imaging technique allows researchers to see what’s written inside, without ever opening the delicate artifacts.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, You Should Stop

In the 18th Century, Charles the Bourbon King of Naples sent an archeological team to Pompeii and Herculaneum to dig up artifacts after scattered discoveries by well diggers and treasure hunters. In 1752, this team discovered their first scrolls, and by 1754 they had discovered an entire library filled with scrolls inside an ancient villa.

Finding the scrolls was well and good, but, of course, people wanted to know what was written. Over the centuries, various techniques were devised to unroll the scrolls, but they usually ended up destroying the brittle papyrus. So, archaeologists gave up on opening the texts to spare the culturally important artifacts. That is, until now.

A New Technique

For years, researchers have used X-ray technology to get a deeper look at anything from molecules to ancient tombs. Basically, you blast an object with X-rays, and different elements in the object reflect those X-ray beams back at different patterns. However, the Herculaneum scrolls presented a unique challenge: The scrolls were scorched and sealed, and the text was written with black, carbon-based ink. The current X-ray techniques weren’t enough detect the pattern variations between the ink and the papyrus, so researchers tried something new.

Their new approach, called X-ray phase-contrast tomography (XPCT), builds a higher-definition image by detecting the slight relief between the letters and the papyrus. The letters rise just one hundred microns above the papyrus, but that’s enough to build a clearer picture than any other technique.

Image by Vito Mocella/ Nature Communications

Letters visualized inside the scroll. Image by Vito Mocella/ Nature Communications

What’s Inside?

We’re sorry, but it’s still going to be a while before the scrolls are completely interpreted. However, researchers’ new technique is an encouraging start. Using XPCT, researchers examined two scrolls and could clearly see letters that formed short phrases such as “would fall” or “to deny,” but not much more.

The scrolls’ small sizes and numerous folds make it difficult to focus on every letter or gauge the letter’s orientation. But what’s important is that researchers proved that you could peek inside these ancient scrolls without destroying them. They published their findings this week in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers have their work cut out for them if they want to get a complete read on the rest of the scrolls, but at least they have the right tool to do it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology, top posts
  • SixSixSix

    Talk about a hard read. It could take centuries to get through the whole thing..

    • jetty

      Can’t wait for the next word to be released…

  • Ziv Bnd

    And we thought piecing the Dead Sea Scrolls together again was arduous…

    • arno

      we will never know the truth about those dead sea scrolls, they dont want us to know the truth, just to believe their lies!!

      • Ziv Bnd

        Arno, they actually inadvertently released them due to the fact that they thought there was no way people could put the “shards” of torn peaces of papyrus together. Then Hebrew Union University announced their software program had been adapted to “re-connect” the “shards” and the powers that be rolled over and released all of them.
        So all of the scrolls have been released and translated versions of them have been published.

        But it took them 35 years to do it.

  • advancedatheist

    Did they make out the words, “Ego, Claudius”?

  • setnaffa

    I’m waiting for the Cliff Notes version. Some of the scrolls are likely interesting and entertaining; the rest (90%?) will probably be like the bureaucratic documents of any large city.

    • crockpot12000

      I believe it said they were found in a large villa..maybe a private stash of?

    • Vinay Kapadia

      They’re going to be like something totally dry and boring like accounting sheets or something.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.meaker Don Meaker

    Victor Hansen wrote an interesting article on this a while ago: The scroll that was read was about the Battle of Salamis. and had the Greeks outnumbered by 2 to 1, instead of 6 to 1 as in our other sources.

    The significance of these letters from ancient times could double our information on those times.

  • BooMushroom

    Step one: scan them all as binary images.
    Step two: crowd source.
    Step 3: knowledge!

  • Vinay Kapadia

    One of them is clearly a text message. You can see them writing “hey!”

    • Edwardntx

      Yes, and the rest of the message: hey, don’t text and chariot!

      • Edwardntx

        All fun aside, who knows what this new technology will provide us in knowledge as to how these people lived some two thousand years ago. It’s truly astonishing what they’ve accomplished with this and what is yet to be accomplished.

        • Vinay Kapadia

          Definitely! It would be awesome to get a peek at what their lives were like. Can you imagine someone in the future, if our civilization collapses like this, finding something like a Game of Thrones book or Harry Potter or something? Or even like tax documents.

          • Edwardntx

            I would hope they would find something like the Magna Carta, our Constitution, Lao Tsu, the beatitudes of Jesus, and certainly a copy or two of Mad Magazine…Civilizations collapse and no doubt ours will too, sooner or later. I’d love to time travel a few years in the future to see what’s up, or better yet, a few thousand years back to watch these documents being written. What a thrill.

          • arno

            problem is, the ones researching are Zionist Pigs, and will never tell us the truth!!

      • Vinay Kapadia

        Are we better than these so called “scientists” or what?

  • Laka

    Seen so far on the ancient scrolls: Arab-Israeli peace process set back; Democrats and Republicans blame each other for failure to cut budget deficits; health care costs spiral out of control.

    • Millie_Woods

      And a Mohammad cartoon.

  • ubik

    But what shirts were they wearing as they peered into these ancient artifacts. Can’t judge a book by it’s cover indeed.

  • Calvin Coolidge

    “…phrases such as “would fall” or “to deny,””. hmm?

  • soundcloset .

    Looks like Sauron’s finger.

  • teapartydoc

    Here’s hoping for a Life of Epaminondas.

  • Keith mcglashing

    No one’s said so I guess I will…hopefully we’ll be given the closest thing to exact answers, and not be tainted by opinion, persuasive ignorance, much like some of us feel the good book has…tell us the truth no matter, no sugar coating, or exaggerating.

  • marc

    Herculaneum and Pompeii are two incredible towns to see for someone who like history . Guess in that scroll the continued overleaf of
    Odysseus and a new journey …….

  • alfredo_tomato

    Once there was a man from Nantucket…


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