Scientists with state-of-the-art technology are about to unlock the secrets of hundreds of charred scrolls that spent centuries buried under the ash of devastated Roman city of Pompeii.
The team from the UK’s national synchrotron facility and the US University of Kentucky have developed techniques that can read the contents of ancient scrolls even if they are too fragile to unwrap.
Synchrotron technology combines high energy x-rays and artificial intelligence to analyse the writing on the scrolls.
In this case, the artefacts were buried for 2,000 years following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and the surrounding area – including the nearby town of Herculaneum.
They have sat unread on museum shelves since their discovery in 1752, when a villa was uncovered.
Library belonged to Caesar’s family
The building is thought to have belonged to the family of Julius Caesars’s wife and contains the only surviving library from antiquity.
Historians have attempted to read the scrolls before, but each try has ended in disaster as the carbonised papyrus rolls were destroyed.
The new investigation will leave the scrolls untouched as x-rays scan the contents. The AI will then learn how to differentiate papyrus from ink in a bid to read the words in the document.
Senior detector scientist Dr Jens Dopke said: “We get such a high resolution within the object that we can then detect changes in the microscopic structure of the papyrus it was written on and therefore are able to reconstruct where the writing happened on that scroll.”
Bible scroll unravelled
The team has already successfully used high-energy x-rays to “virtually unravel” a 1,700 year old Hebrew parchment found in the holy ark of a synagogue in Israel, revealing it to contain text from the biblical book of Leviticus.
The researchers expect the scrolls to be mainly philosophical treatises written in Greek.
Ancient libraries were split into Greek and Latin sections, and few scrolls written in Latin have survived.
“A new historical work by Seneca the Elder was discovered among the unidentified Herculaneum papyri only last year, thus showing what uncontemplated rarities remain to be discovered there,” said one of Dopke’s team.