Charred Scrolls by Mount Vesuvius Can Be Unraveled

The story of Pompeii and Herculaneum's destruction is well known and you have probably even seen movies in which Mount Vesuvius explodes in a rain of fire that annihilates the cities. The volcanic explosion of Vesuvius decimated the cities and their people, and in addition important scrolls were charred by the hot debris, turning the scrolls into sensitive, brittle and fragile pieces of carbon that could not be unraveled. So far.

Nearly 2, 000 years after the tragedy, a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky, with the help of Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, said they had enough technology to "open" the scrolls and decipher the papyrus text nearly destroyed by Vesuvius.

X-rays through history!

According to the researchers, the carbon parts that formed with the scrolls will be exploded with high energy x-rays. This will capture the ink marks invisible to the naked eye. But how to decipher these marks? With artificial intelligence. Professor Brent Seales, director of the University of Kentucky Digital Restoration Initiative, said in a statement that there is no expectation to immediately see the text of these scans, but that they can provide important elements to enable visualization.

Photo: University of Kentucky

“First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in definition that was never possible. We need this level of detail to figure out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits, ”he said. The tool being developed will amplify the ink signal and thus train a computer algorithm to recognize it, Seales explained.

The set of two complete scrolls and four fragments was found alongside thousands more papyrus in 1752 around the ruins of a Roman village near the Bay of Naples. These texts are believed to be the only surviving library in their entirety and they hold philosophical writings that can give a broader view of how the world was constituted during the Roman Empire.

Known as Herculaneum scrolls, they have already gone through “widely disastrous” attempts to roll out. This time, technology should help unravel the mysteries that were sealed with the Mount Vesuvius explosion.