X-Ray Reveals Secrets of Burned Vesuvius Scrolls

The charred remains of the rolled papyrus scroll from Herculaneum.

The charred remains of the rolled papyrus scroll from Herculaneum.

Ancient scrolls that were burned and buried in ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly two thousand years ago have begun to give up their secrets.

Researchers in Italy used a powerful x-ray procedure to read out the first words from two of the Roman scrolls, which belong to the only library to have survived from the ancient world. The papyrus scrolls are among hundreds discovered in 1754 that made up an entire library in a small room of a huge villa in Herculaneum, a Roman city that was destroyed alongside Pompeii when the volcano erupted.

The villa and its lavish library of Epicurean philosophical texts is thought to have belonged to a wealthy Roman statesman, perhaps Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

During the eruption in 79, the Herculaneum scrolls were burned by a furnace-like blast of hot gas that reached 610 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat pulse carbonized the papyri leaving the scrolls charred and too fragile to unroll without destroying them. The papyri sheets could reach 50 feet long and were tightly rolled right-to-left, so they could be read left-to-right.

Scientists at the National Research Council in Naples found they could read some of the scrolls without opening them by peering inside with x-rays. The procedure they developed, called x-ray phase contrast tomography (XPCT), could pick out the black ink against the charred papyrus sheet because of a tiny but distinct difference in the way the two materials refracted the x-rays.

Using XPCT, Vito Mocella and others revealed letters from the Greek alphabet and several distinctive words on two fire-damaged scrolls, one rolled, the other unrolled. The scrolls had been handed to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift in 1802 and now belong to the Institute of France.

X-ray images taken of the unrolled scroll identified two words written in a hidden layer of the papyrus. On one line, the researchers spotted Greek capital letters spelling out a word meaning “would fall.” On the next line, they found another Greek word meaning “would say.”

The rolled-up scroll was badly damaged and flattened from the blast of the eruption, making it tougher to read out the words on the papyrus. But Mocella said they could make out several letters from incomplete words. Some letters might have spelled out Greek words meaning “to deny” or “for” with other letters resembling the word for “the.”

The images produced by the x-ray machine gave the scientists rare clues to the author of the scrolls. On close inspection they found that the handwriting style of the rolled-up scroll was similar to that of another Herculaneum papyrus written by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, who may have written the text in the first century BC.

The x-ray images shed little light on the meaning of the texts so far, but Mocella writes in the journal Nature Communications, that it will be possible to read complete scrolls with a more powerful x-ray machine called a synchrotron.

“This study, without compromising the physical integrity of the roll, has not merely discovered traces of the ink inside it, but has also helped identify with a certain likelihood the style of handwriting used in the text, along with its author,” the team wrote.

“It holds out the promise that many philosophical works form the library of the ‘Villa dei Papiri,’ the contents of which have so far remained unknown, may in the future be deciphered without damaging them in any way,” they added.

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