Ancient scroll buried by Vesuvius virtually unwrapped

A team of archaeologists managed to virtually unroll papyrus scrolls, using a technique called x-ray phase-contrast tomography. The scrolls were among these found at Herculaneum in 18th century.

Cross-sections through the PHerc.
495 scroll (by Inna Bukreeva, Michele Alessandrelli, Vincenzo Formoso, Graziano Ranocchia, Alessia Cedola)

In 1752 an intact library was discovered in Herculaneum, containing a large number of papyrus scrolls. They were philosophical texts, many associated with the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara. This is the only complete library that has survived from antiquity. And while many of the rolls were destroyed by workmen at the time and by scientists and archaeologists later, some 1,800 rolls survive, most of them in the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy. During the eruption, the papyrus rolls were heated in an oxygen-free room, carbonized, crushed, and in some cases partially melted. Today, many of them are not only fragile but tightly rolled, twisted, and deformed. So far about 800 papyri were unrolled with various techniques and with varying degrees of success.

Sections of the tomographically
reconstructed 3D image and selected sections of the P
Herc. 495 scroll (by Inna Bukreeva, Michele Alessandrelli, Vincenzo Formoso, Graziano Ranocchia, Alessia Cedola)

The team of archaeologists used a technique called x-ray phase-contrast tomography at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, which produced a 3-D representation of the roll in which the sheets can be identified and separated. The 3D image is sliced into layers forming the twisted and deformed cylindrical shape and each layer can be visualised. However, carbon-based ink does not show up on carbonized papyrus, at least not in x-ray images. The sheets lie on top of each other, consecutive sheets have the same geometry, so they could have been manually unpeeled. Archaeologists tested the software on 3D x-ray images of two papyri called PHerc 375 and PHerc 495. According to the researchers, several textual portions of up to fourteen lines were identified for the first time, the largest ever detected so far in unopened papyrus roll.

(after Inna Bukreeva, Michele Alessandrelli, Vincenzo Formoso, Graziano Ranocchia, Alessia Cedola & Technology Review)

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