Scientists are reading pieces of an ancient scroll buried almost 2,000 years ago during the Mount Vesuvius eruption.

More than 200 years ago, hundreds of scrolls were discovered in the remains of a once impressive villa at the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. The town, along with Pompeii, was destroyed by volcanic pyroclastic flows when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79.

While the scrolls survived the catastrophic eruption, volcanic gases made them very brittle. Any attempt to unroll the scrolls would destroy them.

Now, researchers in Italy are using X-rays to read parts of two scrolls. Specifically, the research team used a method called X-ray phase contrast tomography (XPCT). It’s the same method used to examine delicate fossils without damaging them.

Previous observations of the scrolls failed to yield results due to the similar chemical compositions of the carbonised papyrus scroll and the black charcoal ink the words were written with.

X-ray phase contrast tomography looks at the tiny differences in radiation when the X-ray passes through different substances. While the scrolls and the ink are chemically similar, researchers were able to tell them apart with this method.

The XPCT method works so well that researchers believe they know who wrote a portion of one of the scrolls. It was likely written by Philodemus, a philosopher who died nearly 100 years before the volcano erupted.

letters from Herculaneum scrolls

The study “has not merely discovered traces of ink inside it, but has also helped identify with a certain likelihood the style of handwriting used in the text, along with its author,” reads the paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

The researchers also write the XPCT method “holds out the promise that many philosophical works from the library of the ‘Villa dei Papiri,’ the contents of which have so far remained unknown, may in future be deciphered without damaging the papyrus in any way.”

Check out the paper to read more about the process used on the scrolls.

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