In 79 CE, as Mount Vesuvius rained hell down on the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum below, a fine set of scrolls laid in a private library near the coastline. Along with much of the towns and their people, the scrolls were carbonized through a blast of hot volcanic debris, searing them into lumps of brittle carbon that are too fragile to unravel.
Now, almost 2,000 years on, a team of researchers say they finally have the technology to decipher the papyrus text.
Scientists from the University of Kentucky have employed the help of Diamond Light Source, a synchrotron light source science facility in the UK, to blast the carbonized scrolls with high-energy X-rays to pick up on subtle hints of ink that are invisible to the naked eye. They will then use artificial intelligence to “fill in the gaps.”
“We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization," Professor Brent Seales, director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky, explained in a statement. "First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible, and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits.
“The machine-learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it – pixel by pixel – from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is – voxel by voxel – in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragment,” he added.
This particular set of scrolls, consisting of two complete scrolls and four fragments, were found alongside thousands of other papyri in 1752 around the ruins of a Roman villa near the Bay of Naples. Collectively known as the Herculaneum papyri, the texts are thought to be the only surviving library from antiquity that exists in its entirety. The texts that have been successfully studied namely contain writings of a philosophical nature that provide a fascinating insight into the world of the Roman Empire.
Many of these scrolls remain tightly closed and impossible to read in their current state. There have been attempts to physically unfurl a handful of the closed Herculaneum scrolls, however, the researchers say these have been “largely disastrous.” As such, many of the texts have remained untouched and their wisdom unknown.
Judging by the team and technology being used this time around, the scrolls are in safe hands. Professor Seales, the computer scientist leading the work, has previously been involved in efforts to use imaging techniques on all kinds of ancient documents, including the En-Gedi scroll, the earliest copy ever found of an Old Testament Bible scripture.