Mount Vesuvius did its best to obliterate the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the A.D. 79 eruption but new discoveries in X-ray technology may be able to help scientists decode the writing and reveal the secrets contained in the ancient scrolls salvaged from the archaeological remains. Although the carbonized ancient texts have long been considered a lost cause, scientists are discovering new applications of cutting edge technologies that may help them unlock the contents and make it available to modern researchers. Although the Vesuvius scrolls have been available since the first excavation in 1752, previous attempts to unroll the documents and read the words through special techniques and technologies destroyed too much of the fragile papyri so the projects were halted. If perfected, the new X-ray technique would be a significant advance in the cause of reclaiming the heritage of much ancient literature obscured by the ravages of nature and time.
The scrolls were originally uncovered at the site of a villa said to belong to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, in Herculaneum, the lesser known of the cities destroyed in Mount Vesuvius’ historic volcanic eruption. Unlike Pompeii, which received the brunt of the lava flow, Herculaneum was hit with a wave of ash and superheated gases, which preserved the 300 papyrus rolls as carbonized cylinders rather than burning them to ash. Over the years, researchers have tried carefully unrolling the scrolls and reading the text using infrared cameras, but the process ruined an excessive amount of the delicate and brittle documents so they abandoned that strategy. Efforts to read the text with CT scans while the papyri was still wound up only revealed the internal landscape of the documents but could not make out the letters and words.
The National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems’ (CNR-IMM) physicist Dr. Vito Mocella led the X-ray team that broke new ground in being the first to successfully distinguish a few Greek letters secreted inside a coiled Mount Vesuvius scroll. Although it is difficult for the naked eye to distinguish between the burnt papyri and the ink, the specialized X-ray technique can reveal the raised bumps of ink that sat on top of the paper rather than sinking into the fibers. By separating the ink from the charred paper using a specialized tomographic process, scientists can create a high contrast image that allows them to decode the letters inside the scroll for the very first time.
Once the X-ray decoder method is fully developed, scholars of ancient literature will be able to leverage its power to rediscover many more relics of ancient literature long thought to be an irretrievable heritage lost. Due to the distorted layers inside the Vesuvius papyrus scrolls caused by the volcanic damage, researchers will also need to take advantage of University of Kentucky computer scientist Brent Seales’ work with another X-ray technique to “untangle” the surface of the scroll and place each letter in the correct place in order to decode the words.
Mocella’s team did a handwriting analysis on the scroll they used for testing and compared it to other ancient texts. They concluded that it was probably the work of Epicurus and poet philosopher Philodemus, who died about 100 years before Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Other scrolls appear to be Literary scholars are already making a wish list of texts they hope the X-ray technique will reveal, including Virgil and Livy. The villa appears to have had a substantial library collection and could possibly hold the secrets of many lost treasures of Roman literature and primary source historical accounts never before seen. Early manuscripts of known works would be invaluable to scholars in establishing the accuracy of the medieval copies, according to New York University classics professor David Sider. What reserves of Greek and Roman classical thinkers, authors and philosophers Mount Vesuvius vanished in the darkness of volcanic destruction, scientists may yet bring to light again with the power of modern technology.
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