A January 20th article in the New York Times highlights that a new ultra-fine X-ray technology is allowing researchers to read completely carbonized papyrus scrolls that were superheated by volcanic gases in Pompeii.

Herculaneum Scrolls Near Pompeii Can Be Read With X-Rays

Dr. Vito Mocella, of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy, led a team who say that they can read letters inside the Herculaneum scrolls at Pompeii without unrolling them. The new technique involves using a laser-like X-ray beams from the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France. With the new method, the scientists were able to detect the extremely slight contrast between the carbonized papyrus fibers and the 2000-year-old ink, also largely made of carbon.

The results of the new X-ray method were reported on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

More on Herculaneum scrolls

The library where the ancient papyri were stored is in a villa in Herculaneum, a town close to Pompwii that was destroyed in AD 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii was engulfed by flowing lava, but instead a mix of superhot gases and ash passed over Herculaneum, preserving much of the contents in a grand villa in the town that belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

The hot gases did not burn the many papyrus rolls in the villa’s library, but instead turned them into rolled-up cylinders of carbonized plant material. Numerous attempts to unroll the carbonized scrolls have been attempted since they were discovered back in 1752. After meeting with no success in several attempts, scholars decided to leave the scrolls alone and hope that better methods would eventually be developed. Close to 300 relatively intact scrolls survive today, as well as several hundred fragments.

Statements from researchers

Mocella’s team report that the contrast enabled by the new technique allows them to recognize individual Greek letters from the interior of the roll. “At least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally,” Mocella said in an interview with the NYT. The scientists are now considering a number of methods to refine the power of their technique.

“If the technology is perfected, it will be a real leap forward,” noted Richard Janko, a classical scholar at the University of Michigan who has worked on translating the very few of the Herculaneum scrolls that can be read.