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Applied physics: Reading the rolled scrolls of Herculaneum

Nature Communications

January 21, 2015

Ancient Roman scrolls that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius but are too fragile to unravel, may finally be read using a non-invasive imaging method reported in Nature Communications this week. The scrolls form part of the only library to have survived from the classical world and it is hoped that the method could be used to help decipher other unread scrolls from the same collection.

Hundreds of papyrus scrolls, buried by the famous 79AD Vesuvius eruption, were discovered 260 years ago in the library of the ‘Villa dei Papiri,’ a huge villa in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. During the eruption, hot volcanic gas carbonised the scrolls making them fragile and brittle and attempts to unravel and read them have only damaged or destroyed them.

Vito Mocella and colleagues used X-ray phase contrast tomography to decipher the text in one of the scrolls. This proved difficult as the carbonised papyrus scroll and the black charcoal ink used to write on it both absorb X-ray weakly. X-ray phase contrast tomography, however, was used successfully to discriminate ink from papyrus, despite their similar chemical compositions, because it exploits differences in the phase (a measure of how fast light or other radiation propagates through a substance) of the two substances, helping to enhance the contrast between them.

The authors found that the handwriting style on the scroll is similar to that on another Herculaneum papyrus written by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. They speculate that Philodemus may also have written the scroll they examined, perhaps somewhere in the second quarter of the first century BC.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms6895

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