For over two millennia, scrolls from the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum evaded examination. Left buried under the ashes when Mount Vesuvius exploded in 79 AD, the scrolls were well-preserved — but in a charred and illegible state.
But thanks to modern science, researchers are now able to read what’s on the scrolls without even opening them up. They’ll do this with a new procedure that lets them to unroll the Herculaneum scrolls — virtually.
The process is called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. It virtually unwraps the scrolls and flattens out digital sheets of the physical carbonized document. That’s a major development because the scrolls, which were buried in a Herculaneum library and excavated 260 years ago, are extremely fragile and could possibly be ruined by unwrapping using older, more invasive methods.
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The technology could also help scientists and others read other ancient scrolls that have been illegible for thousands of years.
“The goal of this technology is to make it accessible to all art historians, museums and libraries to virtually read ancient manuscripts that have been so damaged,” says Alessia Cedola, a researcher and physicist at Italy’s National Research Council.
“The result is significant because we are finally able to virtually see what’s inside the scroll.”
So what do the scrolls say? It’ll be a little while before the world knows. The content from two of the scrolls — written by the ancient philosopher Philodemus on the subject of political rhetoric — is currently being translated from ancient Greek into English and will soon be published in a scientific journal.
There are a total of six Herculaneum scrolls, some unrolled and others in a fully rolled state.