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Scholars Can Finally Start Reading Ancient Scrolls Found Near Pompeii

New technology can tease out letters inked on thousands of pieces of papyrus that were badly blackened, yet preserved, by the infamous volcanic eruption.

Via Wikimedia Commons

In 79 A.D., Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, a town south of Naples. Much of the town’s relics and dead were well-preserved by the volcano’s ash, but the scrolls in a library in nearby Herculaneum—called the Villa de Papyri for the discovery made there—were left blackened, and so delicate that to even touch them risked their destruction. Scholars despaired that despite finding so many scrolls (about 1,800 at this time) their state of ruination would forever keep their secrets a mystery.

Ancient wisdom is great but it in this case, it would be nothing without modern invention. Three hundred years after the discovery of these scrolls, new x-ray technology is making them legible for the very first time, reports Smithsonian magazine:

[A] team led by Vito Mocella of the Italian National Research Council has shown for the first time that it is possible to see letters in rolled scrolls using a twist on CT scanning called x-ray phase-contrast tomography, or XPCT… Rather than looking for absorption patterns, XPCT captures changes in the phase of the x-rays. The waves of x-rays move at different speeds as they pass through materials of various density. In medical imaging, rays moving through an air-filled organ like a lung travel faster then those penetrating thick muscle, creating contrast in the resulting images. Crucially, the carbon-based ink on the scrolls didn't soak into the papyrus—it sits on top of the fibers. The microscopic relief of a letter on the page proved to be just enough to create a noticeable phase contrast.

Many of the scrolls come from Philodemus, who studied at the Epicurean school in Athens and was a scholar of that movement, which focused on pleasure and questioned a focus on the afterlife. (In other words, he liked to party.) Philodemus was also a teacher of the poet Virgil. So far they haven’t been able to read an entire document, so there are no new Epicurean theories to debate or some juicy explanation for the inspiration behind the Aeneid. But they have managed to pick out all 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. And they have managed to spell out the words “would fall” and “would say.” As in “I would say that if there was a volcanic erruption all this shit would fall down”? Probably not, but who knows? Let’s let the XPCT be the judge.

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