Ancient Papyrus Scrolls Charred By Vesuvius Can Be Deciphered

Hundreds of papyrus scrolls were charred by volcanic eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. The papyrus scrolls are believed to contain famous lost ancient works, but they have long remained a mystery. Now scientists have used a sophisticated X-ray method called X-ray Phase Contrast Tomography to decipher the writing on scrolls even when they are rolled up.

1,800 scrolls were unearthed in the 1750s

It is the first time ancient classical texts on papyrus scrolls burned by volcanic eruption were read without they being unrolled and destroyed. The scrolls came from a library in the Villa of the Papyri in the ancient city of Herculaneum. The sumptuous villa is believed to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The volcanic eruption had buried many ancient cities including Herculaneum and Pompeii.

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The papyrus scrolls were carbonized by volcanic gas, and look like burned logs. In the 1750s, about 1,800 of brittle and delicate scrolls were unearthed. A few of them have been deciphered in the last 260 years, but the contents of most remain a mystery. The method of unrolling them and separating their layers has destroyed many scrolls.

Papyrus Scrolls Vasuvius

Intact papyrus scroll was written by philosopher Philodemus

Texts on the scrolls were written using the black charcoal ink, which has very similar composition to carbonized papyrus. That makes it hard to decipher the writing even with the help of advanced techniques. But the X-ray Phase Contrast Tomography helped scientists make out the writing without unrolling the scrolls. Emmanuel Brun, lead author of the study, said that the papyrus scrolls are “extremely fragile” because they are just pieces of charcoal.

Vito Mocella of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems said they used the method on one intact scroll as well as many scroll fragments. Researchers said that the writing was in ancient Greek. They determined that the intact scroll might have been written by philosopher Philodemus in 1st century BC. Scientists now plan to use the method to decipher hundreds of other scrolls. Findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications