Un­rav­el­ling an old mys­tery

Sci­en­tists use X-rays to read charred scrolls

SundayXtra - - NEWS - By Am­ina Khan

TALK about read­ing be­tween the lines. Sci­en­tists us­ing X-rays say they can, for the first time, read words inside the charred, rolled-up scrolls that sur­vived the cat­a­strophic erup­tion of Mount Ve­su­vius nearly two mil­len­ni­ums ago.

The find­ings, de­scribed in the jour­nal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, give hope to re­searchers who un­til now have been un­able to read th­ese del­i­cate scrolls with­out se­ri­ous risk of de­stroy­ing them.

The scrolls come from a li­brary in Her­cu­la­neum, one of sev­eral Ro­man towns that, along with Pom­peii, were de­stroyed when Mount Ve­su­vius erupted in AD 79. This li­brary, a small room in a large villa, held hun­dreds of hand­writ­ten pa­pyrus scrolls that had been car­bonized from a fur­nace-like blast of 320 C gas pro­duced by the vol­cano.

“This rich book col­lec­tion, con­sist­ing prin­ci­pally of Epi­curean philo­soph­i­cal texts, is a unique cul­tural trea­sure, as it is the only an­cient li­brary to sur­vive to­gether with its books,” the study’s au­thors wrote.

Re­searchers have tried ev­ery way to read th­ese rare and valu­able scrolls, which could open a sin­gu­lar win­dow into a lost lit­er­ary past. The prob­lem is, they are so del­i­cate it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to un­roll them with­out harm­ing them. That hasn’t kept other re­searchers from try­ing, how­ever — some­times suc­cess­fully, and some­times not.

This is where a tech­nique such as X-ray com­puted to­mog­ra­phy, which could pen­e­trate the rolled scrolls, would come in handy. The prob­lem is, the an­cient writ­ers used ink made of car­bon pulled from smoke residue. Be­cause the pa­pyrus had been car­bonized from the blaz­ing heat, both pa­per and ink are made of roughly the same stuff. Be­cause the soot-based ink and baked pa­per have about the same den­sity, un­til now it’s been prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to tell ink and pa­per apart.

But a team led by Vito Mo­cella of the In­sti­tute for Mi­cro­elec­tron­ics and Mi­crosys­tems in Naples, Italy, re­al­ized they could use a dif­fer­ent tech­nique called X-ray phase-con­trast to­mog­ra­phy. Un­like the stan­dard X-ray CT scans, X-ray phase-con­trast to­mog­ra­phy ex­am­ines phase shifts in the X-ray light as it passes through dif­fer­ent struc­tures.

Us­ing the tech­nique, the sci­en­tists were able to make out a few words and let­ters from two scrolls, one of them still rolled.

Read­ing th­ese scrolls is dif­fi­cult; com­puter re­con­struc­tions of the rolled scroll re­veal the pa­per inside has been thor­oughly warped, and some of the let­ters on the pa­per are prob­a­bly dis­torted almost beyond recog­ni­tion.

Nonethe­less, the re­searchers were able to read a num­ber of words and let­ters, which were about two to three mil­lime­tres in size. On an un­rolled frag­ment of a scroll called PHerc. Paris. 1, they were able to make up the words for “would fall” and “would say.” In the twisted, dis­torted lay­ers of the rolled-up pa­pyrus called PHerc. Paris. 4, they could pick out in­di­vid­ual let­ters: al­pha, nu, eta, ep­silon and oth­ers.

The let­ters in PHerc. Paris. 4 are writ­ten in a dis­tinc­tive style with cer­tain dec­o­ra­tive flour­ishes that seemed very sim­i­lar to a scroll called PHerc. 1471, which holds a text writ­ten by the Epi­curean philoso­pher Philode­mus. The re­searchers think they were writ­ten in the sec­ond quar­ter of the first cen­tury BC.

If they’re right, “then the pa­pyrus is quite likely to con­tain a text by Philode­mus,” the au­thors wrote. “Thus, this study, with­out com­pro­mis­ing the phys­i­cal in­tegrity of the roll, has not merely dis­cov­ered traces of ink inside it, but has also helped iden­tify with a cer­tain like­li­hood the style of hand­writ­ing used in the text, along with its au­thor.”

Ul­ti­mately, the re­searchers wrote, this work was a proof of con­cept to give other re­searchers a safe and re­li­able way to ex­plore an­cient philo­soph­i­cal works that were un­til now off-lim­its to them.

RIGHT: Vis­i­tors at the li­brary ex­am­ine one of the scrolls dam­aged by the erup­tion of Mount Ve­su­vius.


ABOVE: David Blank, a clas­sics pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, ex­am­ines an an­cient pa­pyrus scroll at the Na­tional Li­brary of Naples.

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