Using X-Rays on the Herculaneum scrolls

When Vesuvius went pop in 79 AD, the lava flows buried the city of Herculaneum.  One of the houses buried contained a library of papyrus rolls, mostly containing otherwise lost works by the epicurean philosopher Philodemus.  When rediscovered, they were in the state of charred logs, unreadable and very difficult to unroll.

Now Brent Seales is going to see if he can read two of the charred scrolls without trying to unroll them.  (They tend to fall to dust when unrolled, you see).

Brent Seales, the Gill professor of engineering in UK’s computer science department, will use an X-Ray CT scanning system to collect interior images of the scrolls’ rolled-up pages. Then, he and his colleagues hope to digitally “unroll” the scrolls on a computer screen so scholars can read them.

“It will be a challenge because today these things look more like charcoal briquets than scrolls,” Seales said last week. “But we’re using a non-invasive scanning system, based on medical technology, that lets you slice through an object and develop a three-dimensional data set without having to open it, just as you would do a CT scan on a human body.”

The two scrolls that Seales and his team will work on are stored at the French National Academy in Paris. The UK group will spend July working there.

Their system was developed at UK through the EDUCE project, or Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration, which Seales launched through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Experts say that if the UK system works as well as hoped, it could provide a safe new way to decipher and preserve more scrolls from Herculaneum, as well as other ancient books, manuscripts and documents that are too fragile to be opened.

“No one has yet really figured out a way to open them,” says Roger Macfarlane, a professor of classics at Brigham Young University who also has worked on scrolls from Herculaneum. “If Brent is successful it would be a huge, potentially monumental step forward.”

Seales admits that there are hurdles, the biggest being the carbon-based ink thought to have been used on the scrolls. He says that since the papyrus in the scrolls was turned to carbon by the fury of Vesuvius, it might be impossible to visually separate the writing from the pages, even with powerful computer programs.

“The open question is, will we be able to read the writing?” Seales said. “There is a chance that we won’t be able to do it with our current machine, and that we’ll have to re-engineer some things. But if that’s the case, that’s what we will do.”

The full story is here.

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