Jan 16, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Through Time and Stone--X-Rays Help Solve 2,000 year old mystery from Mt. Vesuvius

Jan 21, 2015 05:50 PM EST

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it destroyed several Roman towns including Pompeii and Herculaneum.  With Herculaneum's destruction, hundreds of writings from that era were buried, for what some believed could be all of eternity.  However, scientists have now succeeded in reading parts of an ancient scroll buried by the eruption.

Some of the ancient texts have been deciphered since they were uncovered in the 1750s.  But many more remain a mystery because they were so badly damaged that unrolling the papyrus could destroy them completely.

"The papyri were completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material," says Vito Mocella, a theoretical scientist at the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR) in Naples who led the latest project.

Ancient ink was made of charcoal and gum, making it almost impossible to yield any readable text during attempts to peer inside the scrolls, as the ink is almost indistinguishable from burned papyrus. Mocella and his colleagues decided, however, to try their hand at a different method. Using what is called X-ray phase contrast tomography, the researchers have been able to read the scrolls as it successfully allowed them to examine fossils without damaging them.

Phase contrast tomography uses the subtle differences in the way radiation, like X-rays, pass through different substances, in this case the papyrus versus the ink. Researchers using lab time at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France were able to decipher several letters, proving the method could be used to read what's hidden inside the scrolls.

"Our goal was to show that the technique is sensitive to the writing," Mocella says.

Scientists then compared the handwriting to that of other texts, enabling them to conclude that it was likely the work of renowned poet and Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, who died about a century before the eruption.

The next challenge for the researchers will be to automate the process of scanning and deciphering the text so that approximately 700 scrolls stored in Naples can be read. Scholars studying the Herculaneum texts say this new technique may be a breakthrough for their efforts to unlock the secrets held in these scrolls.

"It's a philosophical library of Epicurean texts from a time when this philosophy influenced the most important classical Latin authors, such as Virgil, Horace and Cicero," professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Cologne, Germany, Juergen Hammerstaedt says. "There needs to be much work before one can virtually unroll carbonized papyrus because one will have to develop a digital method that will allow us to follow the layers."

"But in the 260 years of Herculaneum papyrology it is certainly a remarkable year."

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