Difficulties with the Herculaneum rolls

From Kentucky.com: (via Blogging Pompeii).

Some 2,000-year-old Roman scrolls are stubbornly hanging onto their ancient secrets, defying the best efforts of computer scientists at the University of Kentucky to unlock them. …

The UK team spent a month last summer making numerous X-ray scans of two of the scrolls that are stored at the French National Academy in Paris. They hoped that computer processing would convert the scans into digital images showing the interiors of the scrolls and revealing the ancient writing. The main fear, however, was that the Roman writers might have used carbon-based inks, which would be essentially invisible to the scans.

That fear has turned out to be fact. 


4 thoughts on “Difficulties with the Herculaneum rolls

  1. From what I understand they had data volume difficulties on top of what they believe are resolution difficulties. They think that if they X-ray scan at higher resolutions they will read the impurities in the ink as text. Now, suffering from imagery analysis myself I have a comments: If they scan at higher resolution they will produce more data. Unless they upgrade their computers in the mean time (and from between the lines it seems they were using already good computers) it will take even more time to analyze. Plus it still is debatable if the higher energy/resolution scanning will reveal the ink. All I can say is good luck because I doubt they will succeed.

  2. I work on this project. The problem is you simply don’t get contrast between the ink and papyrus from regular old X-ray absorption. But these scans give us the first real look at the internal structure of a complete scroll, and a good idea of the sort of resolution needed for any other techniques. Resolution alone will likely not solve the problem of retrieving the text with standard CT techniques any time soon, because even with profilometry on already-unrolled fragments, figuring out where there is or isn’t ink on the surface is incredibly difficult due to the noisy (rough) surface of the papyrus substrate. However, there are other approaches (i.e. X-ray fluorescence or phase contrast tomography) which may be able to get some contrast between ink and papyrus. The difficulty, as always, is getting the materials to the equipment or vice-versa. Synchrotron beam time isn’t easy to come by, and neither are Herculaneum rolls!

  3. Thank you very much for this extra explanation! There must be something to lay hold of, and I’m glad to hear that there are more things to try!

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