Metallic Ink Shines in Ancient Herculaneum Scrolls

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 22, 2016 2:45 pm

An ancient, charred scroll being scanned. (Credit: University of Kentucky)

When Mount Vesuvius exploded in 79 A.D., it buried the surrounding country, including the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum so quickly and completely that organic matter didn’t have time to burn. Instead, it transformed into carbon.

While this was bad news for the inhabitants of the region, it was good news for historians: it preserved some of their papyrus scrolls as carbonized tubes — true carbon copies. The only problem with these artifacts is that most cannot be read, as unrolling them would cause them to crumble and disintegrate.

 X-Rays Illuminate

Now, a group of researchers in France has made a key finding that could unlock the secrets of these scrolls for good. Using the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, researchers bombarded scrolls from a villa in the town of Herculaneum with extremely high-intensity X-rays, in a process called scanning X-ray fluorescence. This caused certain elements in the scrolls to emit photons — to light up, essentially. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A separate team of researchers in 2014 used a different X-ray procedure to pick out fragments of writing from inside the scrolls. But the technique used by the team at the European Radiation Synchrotron Facility allowed researchers to see inside individual layers of parchment and read the X-ray-illuminated letters inscribed upon them.

By using the synchrotron to examine the scrolls from multiple angles and depths, they believe that all of the writing contained within the tightly rolled sheets could one day be deciphered. That’s a big deal, because these scrolls represent the only surviving materials from an ancient Greco-Roman library, and could provide important insights into daily life and historical events.

Metal Inks the Key

Not only did the obscured writing become starkly visible, by examining the patterns of photons, the researchers discovered that the ancient scribes used inks infused with metals such as lead, which is an advancement in writing technology not thought to have been discovered until centuries later.

The widespread use of metallic inks was believed to have picked up around 420 A.D., over three hundred years after Herculaneum was buried. This new discovery pushes that date back and shifts our perception of ancient writing technology, according to the researchers.

They concluded that no outside sources of contamination, such as water from aqueducts or metallic pots, could have been responsible for the lead content, indicating that its presence was a purposeful introduction meant to improve the ink.


A figure from the study showing the difference between visible (a), infrared (b) and X-ray (c) imaging of the scrolls. Notice how much clearer the letters are under the X-rays. (Credit: Brun et. al/PNAS)

The Herculaneum scrolls were initially gifted to Napoleon Bonaparte by the King of Naples in the early 1800s, and were subsequently given to the Institute of France in Paris, where they currently reside. Their permanent, delicate state of closure has represented a somewhat ironic challenge to researchers  — they possess the artifacts, but lack a means of reading their contents. Over the centuries, various techniques were devised to unroll the scrolls, but they usually ended up destroying the brittle papyrus.

The researchers were also able to shed light on another mystery contained by the scrolls. The writing on the unlined sheets of papyrus is unusually straight — so much so that the original authors must have had a means of guiding their hands as they wrote. Previous explanations posited the use of rulers placed next to the paper, but the researchers say they have found a much simpler explanation for the precise spacing.

Their X-ray analysis revealed the presence of natural lines in the papyrus sheets formed by tiny crystals of crystobalite, a type of quartz. The spacing of these lines lent itself perfectly to handwriting it seems, making papyrus a truly useful tool.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • Hrushi

    We keep coming up with new ways to do many things we never thought possible.

  • kmtominey44

    Technology – making a new kind of archeology as well as physical anthropology. Love it.

  • Tracy

    This is pretty cool. Can’t wait to learn what’s inside. Only a matter of time before this is implemented as a standard at the post office, though, lol. Reading our mail before we do.

    • lynncar47

      What makes you think that they don’t already have that technology?

      • Tracy

        lol, I wouldn’t doubt they can do it with something new and in good condition. I don’t figure much of anything is private anymore, sadly.

        • Brian

          People don’t send letters in the mail anymore silly people! They email and Google already scans everything…

    • hottubtommy

      do you REALLY think they have the time or care to read any of it? If you really think the government spends all their time reading useless mail, or cameras through the tv into your home etc… then you are smoking WAY too much pot.

      • Darla Ferns Pennington

        They scan for certain code words and read the ones that have the code words in them They don’t read all the stuff.

      • Tracy

        Somebody’s panties are in a bunch, lol. Lighten up. Besides, there’s no such thing as too much pot.

  • Lon T

    The first one they read described a man in a big blue box.

    • Carly Lemke


    • JT1

      I could have swore it said a small red box with metallic flakes in the clear coat

  • NoHope4Mankind


  • mAssimo___

    Technology: Now and then, a Western Civilization thing.

    But let’s not forget that we be all equal and sheyt.

    • Zed

      You are clearly bringing your own agenda to this article. And that agenda is one of bigotry and racism. Is that all you think about?

  • Dennis Dispenza

    The Akashic record would contain these scrolls and much else besides

  • Stanley Telega

    Breathtaking info and I am so glad they were saved and protected by insightful people who knew that a technology would eventually reveal itself to science.

  • Darla Ferns Pennington

    Outstanding! I am curious to see what they find in the scrolls. Herculaleum has always been overshadowed in the media by Pompeii. Some people don’t even know that two cities were buried by Vesuvius Now Herculaneum has a chance to outshine Pompeii.

  • Robert Sigler

    Do you think we might learn anything new about Christianity?

  • DDDDDuane

    The title of this scroll was: “HOW TO SERVE MAN”…..


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