X-Rays Used to Read Ancient Scrolls
In AD 79 Mount Vesuvius erupted destroying the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The ash also preserved much of these cities. In Herculaneum archaeologists discovered a villa with a large library containing hundreds of scrolls. The scrolls had been carbonized by the heat and ash, and are now little more than lumps of charcoal.
Over the years scientists have tried to open the scrolls in the hopes of reading them, but only managed to destroy several of the scrolls. The imagined wealth of cultural information from almost 2000 years ago remains hidden.
Now researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to read the scrolls without opening them using a non-invasive technique of X-ray phase contrast tomography. Previous attempts using X-rays failed because the black ink on the papyrus absorbs X-rays to the same degree as the carbonized papyrus.
The newer technique, however, images the degree to which X-rays are refracted, not absorbed. The ink is raised on the scrolls about 0.1 milimeters, which was enough for the technique to work. Researchers have been able to decipher a number of letters and a few words from one of the scrolls.
The writing on the scrolls appears to be from the philosopher Philodemus (110-40 B.C.E.), writing about the teachings of Epicurus (341—271 B.C.E.).
Epicurus proposed a materialistic metaphysics and was an empiricist with a hedonistic ethic. He believed that atoms were the basic constituents of matter, and rejected the soul, the Platonic notion of perfect forms, and the notion that gods played any role in our lives.
The researchers believe that large sections of the scrolls can be translated using the new technique. There are also likely to be further scrolls undiscovered in parts of Herculaneum that remain buried. Until now there was little incentive to dig up the buried scrolls.