Rock And Scroll: X-Rays Peer Into The Ancient World By "Reading" Volcanically-Charred Papyrus

When we ponder the implications of modern and future technology, it is interesting to note that while they drive us ever further forward, they can also help us understand history more thoroughly.  Such a case was just brought to light by an x-ray technician who creatively solved a classic problem by using an unexpected piece of modern technology.

According to the BBC, Dr. Vito Mocella, of the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy, was at a scientific conference in France when he learned that "X-ray phase-contrast tomography", a common medical analysis method, was being adapted for use in paleontology. He liked the idea and extrapolated it for another interesting historical cause: how to read data on volcanically-scorched ancient scrolls.

It could save your life from breast cancer, but it can also tell of many lives past.
(Image courtesy nature.com.)

Phase contrast refers to the changing "phase" (slight distortion) of light waves as objects are X-rayed. The analysis of the contrast in the light provides a detailed 3D image of an object (as opposed to simply measuring the amount of light that is visible through the object, as is done with a conventional X-ray.) The technique is frequently used for mammograms, as it helps differentiate layers of an object when there is little contrast in the background material.

This allowed scientists to observe the difference between the ink and the papyrus of a scroll from the Herculaneum, an ancient library that was battered by the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD. Volcanic gas at temperatures of 320 Celsius (608 Fahrenheit) charred the scrolls almost to the point of destruction, but ink remnants a mere tenth of a millimeter high were enough for the synchotron machine to deduce some of the words on the scroll.


"Cleopatra is a bitch."
(Image courtesy popsci.com.)

Though the squashed papyrus fibers made determining letters with straight lines difficult (as they were harder to distinguish from the fibers themselves), letters with curved elements were identifiable. The scroll was written in Greek, which was the language of philosophy in ancient Rome. The team believes the scroll to be a work called "On Frank Criticism", a study advocating honesty between friends, written by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus.


The Herculeaneum, the only surviving library from the ancient world, as it looks today (fortunately sans any crazy volcano action.)  More collections from antiquity may benefit from the technology used on the scrolls found here.
(Image courtesy news.softpedia.com.)

Dr. Mocella admits that while the innovative deciphering technique hasn't yet been perfected, he intends to continue experimenting with the project.  Mocella's team was quoted in National Geographic, saying, "This pioneering research opens up new prospects not only for the many papyri still unopened, but also for others that have not yet been discovered."


The scroll, seen by the naked eye in Image A, and then as rendered by the phase contrast x-ray.
And you thought reading regular books was hard.
(Image courtesy nature.com.)


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