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Graphic shows where the Roman scrolls were found and the techniques used to digitally recreate them.


Roman mystery scrolls to be “virtually unwrapped”

By Ninian Carter

October 9, 2019 - Scientists are using brilliant light, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, to help decipher scrolls turned to brittle charcoal and buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79.

With the two 2,000-year-old Roman scrolls fused closed and unable to be unfurled, a team of scientists at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire, UK, is laying the groundwork to deciphering them by using their Synchrotron’s powerful X-ray beam to scan through the carbonised papyri, layer by layer.

Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, obliterating the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were buried under massive pyroclastic surges and ashfall deposits.

The scrolls, which now belong to the Institut de France in Paris, were discovered in the mid-18th Century when the remains of a lavish villa at Herculaneum, likely belonging to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law of Julius Caesar, were excavated. In the dwelling was discovered a library containing around 1,800 carbonised scrolls – the only library from the Greco-Roman world to have survived in its entirety.

Once the Diamond Light Source scan data is complete, the University of Kentucky will use computer technology 15 years in the making to virtually unwrap the scrolls.

If successful, a further 900 carbonised scrolls survive from the villa, and could be read using the same technique – giving unparallelled access to works from the classical period, perhaps even previously unknown texts lost to antiquity.

The University of Kentucky has had success in this area before – in 2015 five complete wraps of the ancient Hebrew scroll from En Gedi were digitally unfurled – the first time a complete text from an object so severely damaged that it could never be opened physically was retrieved and recreated.

PUBLISHED: 09/10/2019; STORY: Graphic News; PICTURES: Handouts/Google Maps