Scientists 'Read' Words on Ancient, Burnt Scrolls

X-ray technology could lead to great literary finds
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 24, 2015 8:00 AM CST
Scientists 'Read' Words on Ancient, Burnt Scrolls
Ancient scrolls, completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material, are displayed at Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015.   (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

It's been centuries since a certain set of ancient scrolls was discovered in 1752, but their words have largely remained a secret. The 300-some rolled-up pieces of papyrus were in Herculaneum, a town pummeled by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The scrolls were left in a delicate state. While researchers have been able to unroll and read pieces of them, the BBC reports, the process damaged the scrolls, and experts gave up. Now, however, scholars in Italy have been able to decipher letters written in the scrolls without unrolling them, the New York Times reports.

Special 3D X-ray technology, also used in some breast scans, reveals the distinction between the ink and the papyrus itself, the BBC notes. "The letters are there in relief, because the ink is still on the top" of the papyrus, a researcher says. That fact helped scientists detect the letters. They're not exactly zooming through the full text now; they've picked up some letters and words, LiveScience reports. But "at least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally," a researcher tells the Times. And some of the scrolls could contain great lost literary works, the paper notes. (Meanwhile, parchment itself is teaching us about history.)

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