Scrolls preserved in Vesuvius eruption read with X-rays

Herculaneum scroll

A team of researchers from Italy and France analyzed six carbonized scrolls, including the one above, from an ancient library in Herculaneum.

E. Brun

In 79 A.D., a 320-degree-Celsius cloud of gas from erupting Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman town of Herculaneum and turned a library full of papyrus scrolls into hunks of carbon. Ever since a 1752 excavation unearthed the scrolls, scholars have been trying to decipher their contents with little luck, until now.

Described January 20 in Nature Communications, a technique called X-ray phase contrast tomography can detect differences between layers of carbon-based ink and fragile papyrus. The X-ray images helped researchers decode snippets of the scrolls without ever unrolling them.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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