The Greek reporter reports that Scientists in Italy were able to read for the first time part of the Greek Herculaneum papyri--texts that were written on ancient scrolls and which were burnt when Mount Vesuvius erupted.


The Herculaneum papyri are more than 1,800 scrolls found in the ancient Italian village Herculaneum in the 18th century, carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. After various attempts of manipulation, a method was found so that scientists were able to read them.

Herculaneum was a resort during ancient times and it is often referred to as 'the other Pompeii', because it was buried in superheated pyroclastic material after the volcano eruption. It is also famous as one of the few ancient cities that can now be seen in almost its original splendor. In the 18th century, a group of archaeologists uncovered a remarkable library scroll that had been carbonized. In the beginning scientists attempted to unroll the burnt papyri, however, due to their fragile state many of them were destroyed.

Now, a team of physicists from the National Research Council’s Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Italy, used a 3D X-ray imaging technique used by doctors for breast scans to look for variations on the scroll make-up and created 3D representations of its internal structure. Dr. Vito Mocella has used this technique to identified a handful of Greek letters within a rolled-up scroll for the very first time. Mocella, a physicist with a background in photonics, first came up with the idea on a visit to the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France.

"I was in Grenoble for a collaboration, and they explained to me some new developments using phase contrast for science, for palaeontology.... They sounded like exotic applications, and I said, I have another idea."

Conventional X-ray imaging simply measures how much X-ray light gets through different parts of the tissue. But this newer method uses the fact that X-rays passing through an object are slightly distorted, or slowed down (a change in the "phase" of the light waves). Even tiny variations in the object's make-up will affect that distortion - so measuring 'phase contrast' can produce a very detailed, 3D picture of its internal structure.

When Dr Mocella's team placed one of the scrolls in the path of a very bright X-ray beam from the synchrotron, it was bumps on the paper rather than chemicals in the ink that yielded the long-hidden letters. Fortunately, however, the ink never penetrated into the fibres of the papyrus, but sat on top of them.

"What we see is that the ink, which was essentially carbon based, is not very different from the carbonised papyrus. So the letters are there in relief, because the ink is still on the top."

The work was time-consuming and involved a lot of guesswork, particularly because the layers of paper were not just rolled, but squashed and mangled by their encounter with Vesuvius.
Furthermore, the grid of papyrus fibres within the paper posed complications, because it disguised many of the letters' vertical and horizontal strokes. For this reason, letters with curved lines were easier to pick out.

The project required many hours of work and a lot of imagination because in several cases the scrolls had been crushed and their layers were stuck together. However, Dr. Vito Mocella, head of the scientific team, is currently trying to improve the method so that they can decipher more text in the future.