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Rescuing Ancient Scrolls

January 28, 2015

Physicists decipher ancient scrolls that were burned and buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2,000 years ago.



Rescuing an ancient library. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. But it also buried the nearby town of Hurculaneum, and its library full of papyrus scrolls. The scorched texts were rediscovered 250 years ago, but scholars couldn’t unroll them without destroying them. But now, physicist Vito Mocella of CNR in Naples and his team have used a technique called x-ray phase contrast tomography to measure subtle differences between burned papyrus and the ink written on it. So far, they’ve been able to make out an entire alphabet.

VITO MOCELLA (CNR Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems – Naples Unit):

Essentially it has been a proof of concept technique.


Mocella’s team hopes that to perfect the technique in order to decipher much larger passages of text, unlocking 2000-year-old wisdom trapped in time. The report appears in the journal Nature Communications. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.