Ancient scrolls charred by Vesuvius could be read once again

US scientists say it may be possible to decipher words using new x-ray technique

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79 it destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their inhabitants and their prized possessions – among them a fine library of scrolls that were carbonised by the searing heat of ash and gas.

But scientists say there may still be hope that the fragile documents can once more be read thanks to an innovative approach involving high-energy x-rays and artificial intelligence.

“Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not any more,” said Prof Brent Seales, chair of computer science at the University of Kentucky, who is leading the research.

The two unopened scrolls that will be probed belong to the Institut de France in Paris and are part of an astonishing collection of about 1,800 scrolls that was first discovered in 1752 during excavations of Herculaneum. Together they make up the only known intact library from antiquity, with the majority of the collection now preserved in a museum in Naples.

Small black fragment
A fragment of a Herculaneum scroll carbonised during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Photograph: Andrew Brookes/Diamond Light Source Ltd

The villa in which they were found is thought to have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator who was assassinated in 44BC.

Experts have attempted to unroll about half of the scrolls through various methods over the years, although some have been destroyed in the process and experts say unrolling and exposing the writing to the air results in the ink fading.

Seales and his team have previously used high-energy x-rays to “virtually unravel” a 1,700 year old Hebrew parchment found in the holy ark of a synagogue in En-Gedi in Israel, revealing it to contain text from the biblical book of Leviticus.

However, while the En-Gedi scroll contained a metal-based ink which shows up in x-ray data, the inks used on the Herculaneum scrolls are thought to be carbon-based, made using charcoal or soot, meaning there is no obvious contrast between the writing and the papyrus in x-ray scans.

While ink in some Herculaneum fragments has been found to contain lead, Seales says it is only trace amounts and does not allow the inside of the scrolls to be read using x-ray data alone. Seales says it has also proved impossible to replicate findings that letters within Herculaneum scrolls can be deciphered by the naked eye from scans captured by a slightly different x-ray technique.

As a result the team have come up with a new approach that uses high-energy x-rays together with a type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning.

The method uses photographs of scroll fragments with writing visible to the naked eye. These are used to teach machine learning algorithms where ink is expected to be in x-ray scans of the same fragments, collected using a number of techniques.

The idea is that the system will pick out and learn subtle differences between inked and blank areas in the x-ray scans, such as differences in the structure of papyrus fibres. Once trained on the fragments, it is hoped the system can be used with data from the intact scrolls to reveal the text within.

Seales said the team have just finished collecting the x-ray data and are training their algorithms, adding that they will apply the system on the scrolls in the coming months.

Team of scientists behind high-tech machine
The team taking on the task of reading the scrolls. Left to right: Front row – Jens Dopke, Brent Seales, Francoise Berard, and Christy Chapman; Back Row – Robert Atwood and Thomas Connolley. Photograph: Diamond Light Source Ltd

“The first thing we are hoping to do is perfect the technology so that we can simply repeat it on all 900 scrolls that remain [unwrapped],” said Seales.

As for what the scrolls contain, the researchers say they are excited.

“For the most part the writings [in opened scrolls] are Greek philosophy around Epicureanism, which was a prevailing philosophy of the day,” said Seales.

Another possibility is that the scrolls might contain Latin text. While classical libraries are believed to have had a Greek section and a Latin section, only a small proportion of scrolls from Herculaneum have so far been found to be in Latin, with the possibility there is a Latin section within the villa yet to be excavated.

Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist and classicist at the University of Oxford who has been involved in training the team’s algorithms, said the project was immensely exciting and agreed it is possible the text might turn out to be Latin. “A new historical work by Seneca the Elder was discovered among the unidentified Herculaneum papyri only last year, thus showing what uncontemplated rarities remain to be discovered there,” he said,

But Obbink is hoping the scrolls might even contain lost works, such as poems by Sappho or the treatise Mark Antony wrote on his own drunkenness. “I would very much like to be able to read that one,” he said.

Contributor

Nicola Davis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Herculaneum scrolls buried by Vesuvius yield another secret: metallic ink
Latest tests on charred ancient papyri reveal the invention of metallic ink to be several centuries earlier than previously thought

Tim Radford

21, Mar, 2016 @7:00 PM

Article image
Mount Vesuvius eruption 'turned victim's brain to glass'
Scientists discover vitrified remains caused by immense 520C heat of disaster in AD79

Nicola Davis

22, Jan, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Pompeii row erupts between rival scientific factions
Volcanologists say excavations by archaeologists are destroying useful clues about lava flow

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

22, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Sensational’: skeleton buried in Vesuvius eruption found at Herculaneum
Archaeologists find remains of fugitive during first dig at site near Pompeii in almost three decades

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

15, Oct, 2021 @7:33 PM

Article image
Vesuvius killed people of Pompeii in 15 minutes, study suggests
Cloud of ash and gas engulfed Roman city within minutes and suffocated inhabitants, research says

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

22, Mar, 2021 @1:57 PM

Article image
Eruption of Vesuvius on Herculaneum ‘like Hiroshima bomb’
Archaeologist compares eruption at Roman town close to Pompeii to dropping of WW2 atomic bomb

Angela Giuffrida in Herculaneum

01, Dec, 2021 @4:12 PM

Article image
It becometh the iceman: clothing study reveals stylish secrets of leather-loving ancient
New research on famous 5,300-year-old frozen remains of Alpine man reveals Ötzi as someone who made use of sheep, goats, cattle and hides from a brown bear

Nicola Davis

18, Aug, 2016 @1:31 PM

Article image
Ancient Roman mosaic floor discovered under vines in Italy
Pristine ‘archaeological treasure’ near Verona may date to 3rd century AD, say experts

Angela Giuffrida Rome correspondent

27, May, 2020 @12:30 PM

Article image
Italian archaeologists have grape expectations of their ancient wine

Tom Kington: Scientists plant vineyards with the aim of making wine using techniques from classical Rome described by Virgil

Tom Kington

22, Aug, 2013 @3:32 PM

Article image
Create UN force to protect ancient heritage from Isis, says Italy
World’s archaeological heritage needs protection by UN ‘blue helmets of culture’ force akin to peacekeepers, says culture minister Dario Franceschini

Rosie Scammell

19, Mar, 2015 @6:03 PM