A team of Italian researchers were able to decipher for the first time an ancient scroll that had been previously charred in an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. To achieve their goal, scientists used a highly advanced X-ray imaging technique often employed in breast cancer early detection.
Mount Vesuvius has burnt to ashes most of Herculaneum in 79AD. The library of Herculaneum was partially destroyed by volcanic gases hotter than 570 F/ 300 C degrees, while most of its scrolls were charred during the eruption. The library was buried under a thick layer of ash, and was later unearthed in the 18th Century.
But, up to this day, all researchers who had tried to decipher the scrolls also destroyed them in the process, because the artifacts were rolled-up when the burn occurred.
However, researchers from the National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, Italy, claim to have developed a new method of reading the ink on the charred paper. The technique was never used before outside medical field, and it relies on a 3D X-ray scanning process.
The new method allowed researchers read an ancient charred scroll without unrolling it.
In the recent years, other scientists had also managed to read the scrolls without unwrapping them with some extra help from IR-cameras. However, the process was abandoned for being too destructive.
Some researchers made use of CT scans to get a look at the content of the scrolls. They could only map their coiled layers, but weren’t able to decipher their contents.
But the CNR-IMM team in Italy said that they could read several Greek letters on a charred scroll without unrolling, or partially destroying it.
Dr Vito Mocella, the lead researcher of the Italian team, is a physicist trained in photonics. He said he came up with the idea of employing the X-ray technique on the scrolls, while discussing with a team of researchers working at a radiation facility in France. Those researchers briefed him that the technique, dubbed “X-ray phase-contrast tomography,” had been recently applied in paleontology with success.
Dr. Mocella explained that the new technique was better than the traditional X-ray imaging.
Conventional X-ray imaging only quantifies how much X-ray light gets through the object being scanned. On the other hand, 3-D X-ray technique detects with great accuracy all the distortions of the X-rays created by the material, researchers explained.
Those distortions allowed a computer to generate a precise 3-D map of the scanned object’s internal structure.
Researchers said that the method was successful because the ink on the scrolls hadn’t penetrated the paper, so the letters were marked by bumps that were eventually 3-D mapped.
Image Source: Smithsonianmag