X-ray technique ‘reads’ burnt Vesuvius scroll

For the first time, words have been read from a burnt, rolled-up scroll buried by Mount Vesuvius in AD79. The scrolls of Herculaneum, the only classical library still in existence, were blasted by volcanic gas hotter than 300C and are desperately fragile.

Deep inside one scroll, physicists distinguished the ink from the paper using a 3D X-ray imaging technique sometimes used in breast scans. They believe that other scrolls could also be deciphered without unrolling. The work appears in the journal Nature Communications.

The resort town of Herculaneum, sometimes called “the other Pompeii”, was similarly buried in ash by Vesuvius. A remarkable library of scrolls was excavated from one of its villas in the 18th century.

Previous efforts to read them, over many centuries, involved special strategies for unravelling the scrolls as delicately as possible. Although some unrolled fragments have been read successfully, particularly in recent years with the help of infra-red cameras, such unwinding efforts were eventually abandoned because of how much of the scrolls they destroyed. Via X-ray technique ‘reads’ burnt Vesuvius scroll.

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