The Huffington Post | By Ed Mazza
Ancient papyrus scrolls charred in the same volcanic eruption that wiped out the city of Pompeii are a step closer to revealing their secrets thanks to a cutting-edge application of X-rays.
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD also leveled the nearby town of Herculaneum. At the time, hundreds of papyrus scrolls inside a villa in the town were carbonized rather than incinerated. The outside was charred, but the writing remained on the inside.
While some have been unrolled and examined, the process was abandoned as it often destroyed the scroll itself. Now, a new technique is offering scientists another way to peek inside the past.
Researchers used X-ray phase contrast tomography to obtain 3-D scans of the insides of the scrolls, according to research published in the journal Nature Communications. Although the ink written on the papyrus is indistinguishable from the papyrus itself, the scans revealed something else: very small bumps in the surface of the scroll.
The ink, as it turns out, was not absorbed by the papyrus, and the bumps, a tenth of a millimeter high, show where the ink rests on the surface of the scroll, according to the BBC.
“So the letters are there in relief because the ink is still on the top,” Dr. Vito Mocella of the the National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples told the network.
The researchers have so far been able to decipher only a few Greek letters so it may be a while before entire documents are revealed. But the team has already been able to make some conclusions.
The scroll they scanned is believed to be the work of poet and Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, Mocella told The Associated Press.
The scrolls come from the library of a villa that may have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Along with writings by Philodemus, the collection is likely to contain other Epicurean texts. And some are hopeful the scrolls may be hiding lost works or known works in their original forms.
“For a scholar, it would be wonderful to have a manuscript of Virgil written in his lifetime, because what we have are medieval manuscripts which have suffered many changes at the hands of copyists,” David Sider, a professor of classics at New York University told The New York Times.
“If they’re able to pull it off, it has the potential to revolutionize the study of the ancient world,” Jack Mitchell, a professor of Classics at Dalhousie University, told The Toronto Star.
Ancient scroll rises from the ashes: 2,000-year-old text buried by volcanic eruption is deciphered
- The scroll was retrieved from the remains of a villa at Herculaneum
- Location was a Roman town destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted
- Words deciphered include ‘would fall’, ‘would say’, and ‘to move’
- Some texts from Villa of the Papyri were found and deciphered in the 1750s
- But many remain a mystery because they were so badly damaged that unrolling the papyrus would have destroyed them completely
Using a form of X-ray imaging, scientists have been able to peer inside it without breaking the fragile papyrus.
It is among hundreds of texts retrieved from villa at Herculaneum – a town that was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted 2,000 years ago.
The charred papyrus was unfurled using a form of X-ray imaging called X-ray phase contrast tomography. It takes advantage of subtle differences in the way radiation pass through substances. On one fragment, researchers spotted words that are thought to be ‘would fall’, ‘would say’, and ‘to move’
The catastrophic event was the same eruption that wiped out Pompeii.
Some of the texts from what is called the Villa of the Papyri have been deciphered after being discovered in the 1750s.
It was feared that unrolling the papyrus they were written on would have destroyed them completely.
Vito Mocella, a theoretical scientist at the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, and his colleagues used a technique called X-ray phase contrast tomography. It has previously been used to examine fossils without damaging them.Phase contrast tomography takes advantage of subtle differences in the way radiation – such as X-rays – pass through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink.The only clearly distinct marks in documents such as this scroll, said the researchers, are rounded or oblique traces – shapes that are not easily confused with papyrus fibres – which run vertically and horizontally.For example, letters are A, B, D, E, Z, Y, K, L, M, N, O, P, C, U, F, X, C and O are easy to decipher. While G, H, I, X, P and T are more easily confused. On one fragment, the sequence of Greek capital letters PIPTOIE could be read, and the researchers believe it may read ‘would fall.’In the following line, they believe it reads ‘would say’, and in a later fragment the researchers identified a sequence that could be words of the verb ‘to move.’
‘The papyri were completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material,’ said Vito Mocella, a theoretical scientist at the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples who led the latest project.
Previous attempts to peer inside the scrolls failed to yield any readable texts because the ink used in ancient times was made from a mixture of charcoal and gum.
This makes it indistinguishable from the burned papyrus.
Philodemus of Gadara, born around 35 BC, and was an Epicurean philosopher and poet.
Epicurian philosophy, as established by Epicurus (341 to 270 BC), taught that the purpose of life was to enjoy a happy, pain-free, tranquil existence.
It also encouraged people to surround themselves with friends and try to live self-sufficiently.
Gadara studied in Athens, before moving to Rome, and then to Herculaneum.
He is chiefly known for his poetry preserved in the Greek Anthology, but since the 18th century, many writings of his have been discovered among the charred papyrus rolls at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum.
The task of excavating and deciphering these rolls is difficult, and work continues to this day.
Mr Mocella and his colleagues used a technique called X-ray phase contrast tomography, which has previously been used to examine fossils without damaging them.
Phase contrast tomography takes advantage of subtle differences in the way radiation – such as X-rays – pass through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink.
Using the technology at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, the researchers found they were able to decipher several letters in one of the scrolls, proving that the method could be used to read what’s hidden inside others.
The only clearly distinct marks found inside the document, are rounded or oblique traces – shapes that are not easily confused with papyrus fibres – which run vertically and horizontally, the researchers said.
For example, letters are A, B, D, E, Z, Y, K, L, M, N, O, P, C, U, F, X, C and O are easy to decipher. While G, H, I, X, P and T are more easily confused.
On one fragment, the sequence of Greek capital letters PIPTOIE could be read, and the researchers believe it may read ‘would fall.’
‘Our goal was to show that the technique is sensitive to the writing,’ said Mr Mocella.
In a further step, the scientists compared the handwriting to that of other texts, allowing them to conclude it was likely the work of Philodemus, a poet and Epicurean philosopher who died about a century before the volcanic eruption.
The next challenge will be to automate the process of scanning the charred lumps of papyrus and deciphering the texts inside them.
Once achieved, it will mean 700 further scrolls stored in Naples could be deciphered.
Scholars studying the Herculaneum texts said the new technique may well mark a breakthrough for their efforts to unlock the ancient philosophical ideas hidden from view for almost two millennia.
‘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,’ said Juergen Hammerstaedt, a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Cologne, Germany, who was not involved in the project.
‘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,’ he said.
‘But in the 260 years of Herculaneum papyrology it is certainly a remarkable year.’
The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.