In AD 79, the time of Pompeii had expired. The eruption of near Vesuvius had suffocated and burnt all life in the Roman city on the Gulf of Naples. Together with the nearby city of Herculaneum, the place was buried under ash mountains.
For the inhabitants then the volcanic eruption was a tragedy with high numbers of victims. For today's archaeologists Pompeii is a godsend. The volcanic ash has preserved the city perfectly at the moment of the eruption.
Countless details from the life of antiquity have already been found by antiquarians. These include the remains of a library found in a villa in Herculaneum, which is said to have belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Most of the 1800 times more or less well preserved scrolls are now in an archive in Naples, they are considered the only completely preserved library of antiquity.
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About 2000 years later, researchers are still puzzling what exactly is on the rolls. You can not just roll them out, that would destroy them, experts fear. Many are charred and fragile.
Brent Seales, an expert in ancient papers from the University of Kentucky, is giving new hope to researchers. With a physical procedure and special software he wants to make possible texts visible again. For this purpose, the researchers use the particle accelerator Diamond Light Source in the UK, write them in a message.
They are looking for synchrotron radiation that the device generates when particles are accelerated. These electromagnetic waves can be used in a similar way to X-rays, they are a kind of supermicroscope. Synchrotron radiation provides insights on the smallest molecular level. For example, scientists are researching how the malaria virus infiltrates human cells and hopes to develop new therapies.
At the end of September, researchers had already scanned four labeled fragments and two completely preserved scrolls many times for their procedure. The synchrotron radiation of the Diamond is intended to visualize differences between ink and blank areas of the documents.
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The researchers believe that their procedure could work in principle. As early as 2015, they were able to decipher text on charred Hebrew scrolls and, to a certain extent, unrolled the papyrus pieces digitally. They use X-rays and realize that the En Gedi scrolls are a 1500-year-old biblical text. However, they had it easier here, because the old ink contained metal particles, which caused an easily measurable contrast.
This is not expected in the Herculaneum rolls, the ink was made on a carbon basis and has a similar density to the charred papyrus to which it was applied. Here the X-ray method would not work.
However, the researchers hope that by analyzing the synchrotron radiation of the labeled fragments, they will first be able to create a kind of signature of the ink.
10 picturesPompeii: With the super microscope in the library
Currently, they feed their measurement data into an AI software that trains itself. Whether the algorithm is really capable of recognizing the differences between written and unrecorded scroll passages is still completely open. First results are expected in the coming months.
Seals and his team want to improve their method in the long term so that all the roles of the old library can be made legible again. These are probably philosophical writings. But so far it is not even known in which language they might have been written. Apparently, some of the texts are in Latin and another in Greek.