Secrets in 2,000-Year-Old Scorched Scrolls of Herculaneum to be Revealed with New Tech

Secrets in 2,000-Year-Old Scorched Scrolls of Herculaneum to be Revealed with New Tech

An enormous wealth of knowledge locked within hundreds of ancient papyrus scrolls scorched by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, may now be revealed thanks to new technology which may enable the texts to be read.

The technique, published in the journal Nature Communications , involves a type of X-ray phase-contrast tomography, which enables letters to be highlighted based on their slightly raised height on the papyrus. So far, six scrolls have been analyzed with this method and the resulting text is currently undergoing translation.

“Both the Roman city of Pompeii and the nearby, wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum were wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing thousands of people and covering fine villas in ash and lava,” writes Live Science .

In the 1970s, workers uncovered a library in a villa thought to be the home of a Roman statesman, or even Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. The site, now known as the Villa of Papyri, was excavated by archaeologist Karl Weber between 1970 and 1975 by means of underground tunnels. It was found to contain nearly 2,000 ancient papyrus scrolls, the ‘Herculaneum papyri’.

Villa of the Papyri at the archeological site of Herculaneum ( CC BY SA 3.0 ).

At the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, the precious library was packed in cases ready to be moved to safety when it was overtaken by pyroclastic flow; the eruption eventually deposited some 20–25 m of volcanic ash over the site, charring the scrolls but preserving them— one of the few surviving libraries of antiquity.

According to British linguist and palaeographer David Diringer, more than 340 of the scrolls are almost complete, about 970 are partly decayed and partly decipherable, and more than 500 are completely charred.

Many of the scrolls were preserved enough to be completely or partially unroll, leading to hundreds being deciphered and published. It was found that the library was of a mainly philosophical character, possible collected by the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara. Followers of Epicurus studied the teachings of this moral and natural philosopher. This philosophy taught that man is mortal, that the cosmos is the result of accident, that there is no providential god, and that the criterion of a good life is pleasure and temperance.

Herculaneum Papyrus 1428: Philodemus, On Piety. ( Friends of the Herculaneum Society )

Despite the success in unravelling and reading many of the scrolls, there still remained hundreds of scrolls in which the internal structure was too compact and fragile to unroll. Furthermore, the fact that they had been written with carbon-based ink, which have a much lower contrast to the blackened papyrus than inks with metallic bases, made them impossible to read.

A team of scientists from the National Research Council in Naples, Italy, therefore developed a new technique called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. “Because the letters on the papyrus are slightly raised in height, the waves of X-rays that hit the letters would be reflected back with a slightly shifted phase, compared with the waves that hit the underlying material,” reports Live Science. “By measuring this phase difference, the team was able to reproduce the shape of the letters inside the rolled scrolls.”

So far, the team has analyzed six scrolls that are currently now housed at the French Institute in Paris. While the decipherment of the words in the innermost layer is still proving to be extremely challenging, the research team has been able to decipher at least some of the Greek letters and words written inside the charred scrolls.

Jennifer Sheridan Moss, a papyrologist at Wayne State University in Detroit and the president of the American Society of Papyrologists, said the new technique holds promise for deciphering other burnt papyri as well.

"Most people now believe there is a whole other library under there in that Villa of the Papyri," Moss told Live Science. In Roman times, most libraries held Greek collections and Latin collections in separate areas. Since all the scrolls found to date are written in Greek, it has been suggested that there may be another entire collection written in Latin. Archaeologists are continuing to excavate the villa, though at times hindered by noxious gases released from the ground.

"We could easily find more things that are in bad shape like this, and then the technology could be applied to them," Moss said.

Brent Seales, a computer scientist from the University of Kentucky, asserted in a 2018 interview with CBS News that he could read what was written on the famed Herculaneum papyri – by using modern medical imaging technology . Specifically, Seales would like to analyze the scrolls with a synchrotron – an x-ray that functions by electrons racing around a ring at almost the speed of light. Two Italian scholars, Vito Mocella, a physicist from Naples, and Graziano Ranocchia a papyrologist, soon claimed they had the idea to use a synchrotron too. They beat Seales to gaining access to the machine and the scrolls.

Mocella has supposedly managed to use the technology to read letters . And Ranocchia claims to have even read a phrase on a Herculaneum scroll. Seales doesn’t believe that either of the scholars are correct, but has yet to gain access to analyze the Herculaneum scrolls himself.


New tech could reveal secrets in 2,000-year-old scrolls of Herculaneum

An enormous wealth of knowledge locked within hundreds of ancient papyrus scrolls scorched by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, may now be revealed thanks to new technology which may enable the texts to be read.

The technique, published in the journal Nature Communications , involves a type of X-ray phase-contrast tomography, which enables letters to be highlighted based on their slightly raised height on the papyrus. So far, six scrolls have been analyzed with this method and the resulting text is currently undergoing translation.

"Both the Roman city of Pompeii and the nearby, wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum were wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing thousands of people and covering fine villas in ash and lava," writes Live Science.

In the 1970s, workers uncovered a library in a villa thought to be the home of a Roman statesman, or even Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. The site, now known as the Villa of Papyri, was excavated by archaeologist Karl Weber between 1970 and 1975 by means of underground tunnels. It was found to contain nearly 2,000 ancient papyrus scrolls, the 'Herculaneum papyri'.

At the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, the precious library was packed in cases ready to be moved to safety when it was overtaken by pyroclastic flow the eruption eventually deposited some 20-25 m of volcanic ash over the site, charring the scrolls but preserving them- one of the few surviving libraries of antiquity.

According to British linguist and palaeographer David Diringer, more than 340 of the scrolls are almost complete, about 970 are partly decayed and partly decipherable, and more than 500 are completely charred.

Many of the scrolls were preserved enough to be completely or partially unroll, leading to hundreds being deciphered and published. It was found that the library was of a mainly philosophical character, possible collected by the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara. Followers of Epicurus studied the teachings of this moral and natural philosopher. This philosophy taught that man is mortal, that the cosmos is the result of accident, that there is no providential god, and that the criterion of a good life is pleasure and temperance.

Despite the success in unravelling and reading many of the scrolls, there still remained hundreds of scrolls in which the internal structure was too compact and fragile to unroll. Furthermore, the fact that they had been written with carbon-based ink, which have a much lower contrast to the blackened papyrus than inks with metallic bases, made them impossible to read.

A team of scientists from the National Research Council in Naples, Italy, therefore developed a new technique called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. "Because the letters on the papyrus are slightly raised in height, the waves of X-rays that hit the letters would be reflected back with a slightly shifted phase, compared with the waves that hit the underlying material," reports Live Science. "By measuring this phase difference, the team was able to reproduce the shape of the letters inside the rolled scrolls."

So far, the team has analyzed six scrolls that are currently now housed at the French Institute in Paris. While the decipherment of the words in the innermost layer is still proving to be extremely challenging, the research team has been able to decipher at least some of the Greek letters and words written inside the charred scrolls.

Jennifer Sheridan Moss, a papyrologist at Wayne State University in Detroit and the president of the American Society of Papyrologists, said the new technique holds promise for deciphering other burnt papyri as well.

"Most people now believe there is a whole other library under there in that Villa of the Papyri," Moss told Live Science. In Roman times, most libraries held Greek collections and Latin collections in separate areas. Since all the scrolls found to date are written in Greek, it has been suggested that there may be another entire collection written in Latin. Archaeologists are continuing to excavate the villa, though at times hindered by noxious gases released from the ground.

"We could easily find more things that are in bad shape like this, and then the technology could be applied to them," Moss said.

Brent Seales, a computer scientist from the University of Kentucky, asserted in a 2018 interview with CBS News that he could read what was written on the famed Herculaneum papyri - by using modern medical imaging technology . Specifically, Seales would like to analyze the scrolls with a synchrotron - an x-ray that functions by electrons racing around a ring at almost the speed of light. Two Italian scholars, Vito Mocella, a physicist from Naples, and Graziano Ranocchia a papyrologist, soon claimed they had the idea to use a synchrotron too. They beat Seales to gaining access to the machine and the scrolls.

Mocella has supposedly managed to use the technology to read letters . And Ranocchia claims to have even read a phrase on a Herculaneum scroll. Seales doesn't believe that either of the scholars are correct, but has yet to gain access to analyze the Herculaneum scrolls himself.

Top Image: Papyrus scroll found in a Herculaneum villa. Source: E. Brun


Mysterious scrolls linked to Julius Caesar could be read for first time ever

This 2,000 year old scroll could be read for the first time ever. Linked to Julius Ceaser it was burned and buried before being uncovered in 1752.

A pair of 2,000-year-old Roman scrolls believed to have belonged to the family of Julius Caesar, and that were buried and charred during Vesuvius' eruption, have been virtually "unwrapped" for the first time ever.

The scrolls, known as the Herculaneum Scrolls, are too fragile to be handled by hand, so researchers needed to use the X-ray beam at Diamond Light Source, as well as a "virtual unwrapping" software to detect the carbon ink on them.

“Texts from the ancient world are rare and precious, and they simply cannot be revealed through any other known process," University of Kentucky professor Brent Seales, who led the research team, said in a statement. "The scan session at Diamond Light Source promises to be a key moment in our quest for a reliable pathway to reading the invisible library.”

After they were buried by the Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D., they were discovered in 1752 "in an ancient Roman villa near the Bay of Naples," the statement added. There were six samples that were scanned at U.K.-based Diamond Light, including four fragments that are used to train the algorithm.

Researchers hope that the algorithm will eventually be able to figure out what is written on the scrolls, which are housed at the Institut de France.

“With Diamond Light Source, we get such a high resolution within the object that we can then detect changes in the microscopic structure of the papyrus it was written on and therefore are able to reconstruct where the writing happened on that scroll," researcher Jens Dopke said.

A fragment of Herculaneum scroll. Researchers have been using the UK's national synchrotron science facility, Diamond Light Source, to examine fragments of 2,000 year-old of Herculaneum scroll, owned by the Institut de France, in the hope of using the high energy X-ray beamline to decode the fragments of scrolls. (Credit: GEOFF CADDICK/AFP via Getty Images)

Seales added that the researchers "do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization."

Thomas Connolley, the principal scientist at Beamline, said that this is the first time an intact scroll has been scanned in such detail and is anxious to see the results.

"We are very excited to work with the research team, playing our part in what we hope will be a major step forward in unlocking the secrets that the scrolls contain," Connolley said.


X-Rays Help Decipher Secrets in 2,000-Year-Old Papyrus Scrolls

Hundreds of ancient papyrus scrolls that were buried nearly 2,000 years ago after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius could finally be read, thanks to a new technique.

The X-ray-based method can be used to decipher the charred, damaged texts that were found in the ancient town of Herculaneum without having to unroll them, which could damage them beyond repair, scientists say.

One problem with previous attempts to use X-rays to read the scrolls was that the ancient writers used a carbon-based material from smoke in their ink, said study co-author Vito Mocella, a physicist at the National Research Council in Naples, Italy.

"The papyri have been burnt, so there is not a huge difference between the paper and the ink," Mocella told Live Science. That made it impossible to decipher the words written in the documents.

If the new method works, it could be used to reveal the secrets of one of the few intact libraries from antiquity, the researchers said. [See How the New X-ray Method Works]

Both the Roman city of Pompeii and the nearby, wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum were wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing thousands of people and covering fine villas in ash and lava.

In the 1750s, workers uncovered a library in a villa thought to be the home of a Roman statesman. The site, known as the Villa of the Papyri, contained nearly 2,000 ancient papyrus scrolls that had been charred by the volcanic heat.


2,000-year-old Herculaneum Scrolls from Institut de France being studied using UK’s Synchrotron, Diamond Light Source

Using this powerful light source and special techniques the team has developed, the researchers are working to virtually unwrap two complete scrolls and four fragments from the damaged Herculaneum scrolls. After decades of effort, Seales thinks the scans from Diamond represent his teams best chance yet to reveal the elusive contents of these2,000-year-old papyri.

Prof Seales is director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky (US), a research program dedicated to the development of software tools that enable the recovery of fragile, unreadable texts. According to Seales, “Diamond Light Source is an absolutely crucial element in our long-term plan to reveal the writing from damaged materials, as it offers unparalleled brightness and control for the images we can create, plus access to a brain trust of scientists who understand our challenges and are eager to help us succeed. Texts from the ancient world are rare and precious, and they simply can not be revealed through any other known process. Thanks to the opportunity to study the scrolls at Diamond Light Source, which has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, we are poised to take a tremendous step forward in our ability to read and visualize this material. The scan session promises to be a key moment in our quest for a reliable pathway to reading the invisible library.”

Over the past two decades, Prof Seales and his team have worked to digitally restore and read the vast amount of material in the “invisible library” of irreparably damaged manuscripts. In 2015 they achieved singular success when they visualized the never-before and never-to-be-seen writing trapped inside five complete wraps of the ancient Hebrew scroll from EnGedi (see science Advances). For the first time ever, a complete text from an object so severely damaged that it could never be opened physically was digitally retrieved and recreated, representing a true technical breakthrough (see Virtually Unwrapping the En Gedi Scroll). It is this technology that Seales’ team plans to deploy on the data collected at Diamond.

A long-term goal ofProf Seales has been to reveal the contents of the most iconic items in the invisible library, the Herculaneum scrolls. Buried and carbonized by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, the scrolls are too fragile to be opened and represent the perfect storm of important content, massive damage, extreme fragility, and difficult-to-detect ink.

These famous papyri were discovered in1752 in an ancient Roman villa near the Bay of Naplesbelieved to belong to the family of Julius Caesar. As such, they represent the only surviving library from antiquity. The majority of the 1,800 scrolls reside at the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, although a few were offered as gifts to dignitaries by the King of Naples and wound up at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the British Library, and the Institut de France.

Last May, Prof Seales headed a small team of undergraduate students in Paris to survey the Institut de France’sHerculaneumcollection. They examined two completely intact scrolls, along with four small fragments from scrolls unrolled in the late 1800s. All six items will be scanned at Diamond. Because the four fragments contain many layers and feature visible, exposed writing on the top, they will provide the key data needed to develop the next iteration of the team’s “virtual unwrapping” software pipeline, a machine learning algorithm that will enable the visualization of carbon ink.

The use of carbon ink is one of the main reasons these scrolls have evaded deciphering, according to to Prof Seales. Unlike metal-based inks, such as the iron gall used to write medieval documents, carbon ink has a density similar to that of the carbonized papyrus on which it sits. Therefore, it appears invisible in X-ray scans.

“We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization. First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible, and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits. In addition, we believe strongly—and contrary to conventional wisdom–that tomography does indeed capture subtle, non-density-based evidence of ink, even when it is invisible to the naked eye in the scan data. The machine learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it–pixel by pixel–from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is—voxel by voxel—in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragments. The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader.”

The scanning of these delicate items at the leading science facility, Diamond, will be a mammoth undertaking, for all involved. Because of their extreme fragility, the Seales team fabricated custom-fit cases for the scrolls that enable as little handling as possible. Only highly trained conservators are allowed to handle the samples. The Director of the Bibliothèque at the Institut de France, Mme Françoise Bérard will personally pack the scrolls into their special cases for travel to the UK, and after arrival, they will be inserted into the I12 beamline at Diamond. The I12 beamline or JEEP (Joint Engineering, Environmental, and Processing) beamline is a high energy X-ray beamline for imaging, diffraction and scattering, which operates at photon energies of 53-150 keV.

While a handful of the scrolls from Herculaneumhave been subjected to physical(and largely disastrous)efforts to open them, no one as yet has managed to reveal complete texts from the hundreds that remain tightly closed. Principal Beamline Scientist on the Diamond I12 Beamline where the experiment will take place, Dr ThomasConnolley, adds “This is the first time an intact scroll has been scanned in such detail at Diamond Light Source. We are very excited to work with the research team, playing our part in what we hope will be a major step forward in unlocking the secrets that the scrolls contain.”

“It’s ironic and somewhat poetic,” concludes Seales, “that the scrolls sacrificed during the past era of disastrous physical methods will serve as the key to retrieving the text from those survive but are unreadable. And by digitally restoring and reading these texts, which are arguably the most challenging and prestigious to decipher, we will forge a pathway for revealing any type of ink on any type of substrate in any type of damaged cultural artefact.”

The research team will be at Diamond to scan the scrolls for several days at the end of September.

Header Image – One of the two Herculaneum scrolls from L’Institut de France being scanned at Diamond Light Source by the University of Kentucky, Digital Restoration Initiative team.


&lsquoVirtual unwrapping&rsquo

The majority of the 1,800 scrolls reside at the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, although a few were offered as gifts to dignitaries by the King of Naples and ended up at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the British Library and the Institut de France.

Last May, Seales and a small team examined the two completely intact scrolls, along with four small fragments from scrolls unrolled in the late 1800s at Institut de France. All six items have been scanned at Diamond, and the data is now being analysed &ndash a process that could take several months.

The four fragments contain many layers and feature visible, exposed writing on the top, which will provide key data needed to develop the next iteration of the team&rsquos &ldquovirtual unwrapping&rdquo software pipeline.

This is an algorithm that will enable the visualisation of carbon ink. Seales says the use of carbon ink is one of the main reasons these scrolls have evaded deciphering.

Unlike metal-based inks, its density is similar to that of the carbonised papyrus on which it sits, and therefore appears invisible in x-rays.

One of four fragments from the Herculaneum scrolls. Image: Diamond/PA


UK particle accelerator to reveal secrets of 2,000-year-old papyrus

The synchrotron experimental area at the Diamond Light Source in Didcot, west of London, which will be used to help decipher Roman-era scrolls carbonised by the eruption of Moutn Vesusvius nearly 2,000 years ago

A leading science facility in the English countryside is helping in a bid to decipher Roman-era scrolls carbonised in the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.

Researchers led by antiquities decoder Professor Brent Seales have turned to Diamond, Britain's national synchrotron in Didcot, Oxfordshire, to examine the papyri, which are described as "fragile like butterfly wings".

They hope the synchrotron—which harnesses the power of electrons to produce powerful scans—could now end a decades-long effort to read the historic artefacts owned by the Institut de France.

"Our normal idea of a scroll is that you can just unroll it and read it," Seales, director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky, told AFP during a recent tour of the site in Didcot.

"But these scrolls can't be unrolled because the carbonisation makes them completely brittle and that brittle nature would damage it completely if you tried to bend it at all."

Instead, the Diamond facility acts like a giant microscope, producing light 10 billion times brighter than the sun that allows scientists to study anything from fossils and jet engines to viruses and vaccines.

"When the beam goes through the sample, it creates the possibility of an image that we can't really create any other way," Seales said.

A fragment of the Herculaneum scroll dating back nearly 2,000 years which researchers hope to be able to decipher with the help of a high energy X-ray beamline

The scrolls were discovered between 1752 and 1754 during excavations at the Herculaneum site near the Bay of Naples in southern Italy, in a house believed to have belonged to the family of Julius Caesar.

Unlike Pompeii, which was ravaged by lava during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, Herculaneum was struck by a fiery cloud, which covered the city with ash, entombing everything intact.

One of the houses—the "Villa of Papyrus"—housed an important library of more than 1,800 text scrolls.

They were preserved by the ashes but carbonised and therefore impossible to unroll.

In 1802, six of these rolls were donated by the king of Naples to Napoleon Bonaparte, who entrusted them to the library of the Institut de France in Paris to decipher.

But unfurling and reading them in their delicate state proved impossible, with two attempts in 1817 then in 1877 both failing.

Francoise Berard, Director of the Library at the Institute de France, shows a box containing fragments of fragile Herculaneum scrolls dating back some 2,000 years

More than a century later, in 1986, experts used a method involving chemicals to detach one scroll into several hundred small fragments.

"(It was) very difficult to read," said Yoann Brault, a researcher at the Institut's library, noting they were not able to trace the ink used.

However, advances in technology and special processes developed by Seales mean it may now be possible to virtually unwrap the Herculaneum papyri and uncover their contents.

"We rotate and view all 360 degrees around the outside (of) the object," Seales explained.

"(It) gives us the information of what was inside the object. We get that computationally, not physically."

Transporting the "entirely burnt and extremely fragile" scrolls from Paris to southern England presented "some risks", according to Francoise Berard, director of the Institut de France's library.

Brent Seales, director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky, examines a piece of Herculaneum scroll being deciphered with the help of a particle accelerator in England

"The ideal would be not to handle them at all but obviously we want to help in the discovery of the contents," she said.

"Therefore we accepted certain risks of deterioration during transport but we take maximum precautions because they are fragile like butterfly wings."

Other scientists have also tried non-invasive techniques to decode the documents to varying degrees of success.

In 2014 Daniel Delattre, a researcher at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, used a type of intensive X-ray to glimpse some of the scrolls' contents.

The method revealed Greek letters thought to be from the pen of Philodemus of Gadara, an Epicurean philosopher.

Michel Zink, of France's Academy of Inscriptions and Letters, said such texts "have rarely been preserved" in any form.

"This is why these rolls are so important," the historian added.

"We can hope to succeed in reading entire sentences and perhaps one day, an entire text."


Can technology unravel the secrets sealed by Mt. Vesuvius 2,000 years ago?

You've heard of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Less well known is the neighboring city of Herculaneum, also buried by the volcano. When the city was re-discovered in the 1700s, excavators found what could be the richest repository of ancient Western wisdom: a library filled with papyrus scrolls. Scholars think there could be unknown Greek and Latin masterpieces, possibly early Christian writings, even the first references to Jesus. The problem is, the volcanic heat left the scrolls so charred and brittle, no one has been able to open them without breaking them into pieces. We heard three scholars might finally have found a way to unravel the mystery of the scrolls. So we traveled to Italy to see what we could uncover about the scrolls of Herculaneum.

The Italian city of Ercolano sits along the Bay of Naples on the western slope of Mt. Vesuvius. The city bustles with the chaos of Italian traffic and the easy flow of Italian life. It's not a wealthy place, but beneath these narrow streets lies buried treasure, the ancient Roman seaside town of Herculaneum entombed along with Pompeii in A.D. 79. The modern city is built on top of the ancient city.

Herculaneum and Vesuvius CBS News

Andrew Wallace Hadrill: There's no archeological site in the world that matches this.

We went to Herculaneum with Andrew Wallace Hadrill, founding director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project. He showed us around the excavation site in all its ghostly grandeur.

Bill Whitaker: What do you think is going on here? Were they trying to escape? Were they hiding?

Andrew Wallace Hadrill: In my view, they're not trying to get away by sea, they're simply trying to take shelter under these vaults.

Vesuvius blasted the town with successive, massive surges of heat and ash for 24 hours.

Andrew Wallace Hadrill: Those surges, they kill all human life and all other forms of life. And then, wave after wave, they begin to build up these layers of ash, that compacts into rock.

Bill Whitaker: Until we have this?

Andrew Wallace Hadrill: Yeah.

Bill Whitaker: Eighty feet of--

Andrew Wallace Hadrill: Eighty feet of solid rock.

Bill Whitaker: That ended up preserving this place so well?

Andrew Wallace Hadrill: Yeah, the paradox is that catastrophic destruction is also exceptionally good preservation.

Preserving Herculaneum like a fossil in amber &ndash everything frozen in time, forgotten for nearly 17 centuries until, legend has it, a farmer digging a well struck the past.

Andrew Wallace Hadrill: They've built a really big public building here.

Hadrill told us Herculaneum was like the Malibu of the Roman Empire &ndash oasis for the elite. Early excavators discovered this once opulent villa. Today it looks like a cave.

Andrew Wallace Hadrill and correspondent Bill Whitaker in front of a wall of rock that was once layers of ash CBS News

In A.D. 79 it looked like this. The Getty Villa in Malibu, California is a re-creation of the summer retreat thought to belong to the family of Julius Caesar. Tunneling around in the ancient villa in Italy, early treasure hunters dug out statues and riches enough to fill a grand room in the Naples Museum. But the greatest treasures don't look valuable at all. These are the papyrus scrolls of Herculaneum, 1,800 ancient books written on sheets of plant fiber, flash seared by the volcanic heat, found in the only remaining intact library from the ancient world.

Bill Whitaker: So where was the library?

Massimo Osanna: The library was there.

The precarious villa excavation site is off limits to the public. But Massimo Osanna, former administrator of Herculaneum and Pompeii, took us deep inside.

Bill Whitaker: The library itself has not been excavated like this?

He said there could be hundreds more scrolls yet to be unearthed.

Bill Whitaker: Back in here, in the library?

Massimo Osanna: It's a possibility. Maybe Aristotle. Who knows?

Massimo Osanna: For example.

Scholars have been trying desperately to open the scrolls since they were discovered.

Brent Seales CBS News

Brent Seales: The history of the unwrapping of the Herculaneum Scrolls is littered with failures. Everyone who had tried to open the scrolls had left behind a hideous trail of fragmentary result.

Brent Seales, a brash computer scientist from the New World &ndash the University of Kentucky to be precise &ndash had what he thought was a brilliant idea to solve the 2,000-year-old mystery: use modern medical imaging technology.

Brent Seales: People were going to the doctor every day. And they were doing a CT scan or an MRI. And they were seeing inside their body completely non-invasively. If you can do that to a human in the doctor's office, why couldn't we see inside a scroll? That was the thinking.

Bill Whitaker: Didn't think it was that farfetched?

In the arcane world where academics spend their entire careers poring over fragments of ancient texts, Brent Seales is a superstar. He made his name digitally restoring damaged medieval manuscripts with software he'd designed. A colleague told him about the scrolls of Herculaneum, most housed at the library of Naples, a few others in France and England. He considered them the ultimate challenge.

Brent Seales: The people are gone. The cultures are gone. The places are gone. And yet, like a time capsule, you have this item that tells a story.

Bill Whitaker: All locked away in that thing that looks like a little lump of charcoal.

Brent Seales: They're all locked away.

He knew imaging technology could only reveal a jumble of letters like this. To actually read the scrolls he'd have to unroll them &ndash much like this medieval French scroll at the Morgan Library in Manhattan &ndash but he'd have to do this virtually. After years of trial and error, he and his students thought they'd cracked the code, with algorithms and software. He was cocky enough to announce at Oxford to an international conference of scholars who study ancient papyrus &ndash that he could do what no one else had done.

Brent Seales: I swung for the fence. I gave them a talk where I said, "I think we can read everything inside the Herculaneum Scrolls without opening them."

Bill Whitaker: Did you think the papyrologists would come running to you with their scrolls and say, "Here. Here. Take a look at these?"

Brent Seales: I smile now because that is exactly what I thought.

Bill Whitaker: Didn't happen.

Bill Whitaker: So how hard is it to get your hands on these scrolls?

Brent Seales: I would say somewhere in the vicinity of near impossible.

One of the scrolls CBS News

That's because they're so rare and so fragile curators are reluctant to let anyone handle them &ndash including a superstar like Brent Seales. They wouldn't relent even after he published a paper theorizing a better way to peer inside the scrolls &ndash with this: a synchrotron, a super powerful X-ray generated by electrons racing around this ring at almost the speed of light. There are only about 50 in the world. This one is in Britain. The X-ray is this green beam, 100-billion times stronger than any hospital X-ray. Maybe it's coincidence, but shortly after Seales published his pioneering paper, two Italian scholars stepped forward and claimed they'd had the same idea to use a synchrotron. Vito Mocella, a physicist from Naples, says he first learned about the scrolls as a child.

Vito Mocella: I cannot remember exactly the age, but nine, 10.

And Graziano Ranocchia a papyrologist &ndash he studies ancient Roman papyrus. He pores over bits of Herculaneum scrolls at the Naples Library. Most are fragments of Greek philosophy.

Graziano Ranocchia: I am coming here and working on these papyri every day.

Call it academic competition, call it ego, but American Brent Seales, Ranocchia, the papyrologist and Italian physicist Mocella became fierce competitors -- all fighting to make history as the first to reveal the contents of the scrolls &ndash a gladiatorial wrestling match in the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower. Ranocchia accuses Mocella of sabotaging his research. Seales is convinced the Italians poached his idea to use the synchrotron. The mystery of the scrolls is playing out like some tragic Italian opera.

Brent Seales: You know, they say, Bill, that the reason academics argue is because the stakes are so low. Right? The stakes actually are really high. If you think about the possibility of revealing these manuscripts to the world from 2,000 years ago that no one's ever read. And, okay. So now we're gonna argue with each other? Really? I mean, maybe we could do that later after we've read them.

But the two Italian rivals used their European connections and convinced curators to let each of them &ndash and only them &ndash have limited access to a few scrolls to scan with the synchrotron. They leapfrogged over American Brent Seales and raced to this one in Grenoble, France. Mocella got there first.

It was hard for us to make out, but he said his scan revealed letters.

Bill Whitaker: These are letters?

Vito Mocella: Si. Queste sono lettere.

Yes, he said, these are letters. Mocella won international praise and headlines as the first person to see inside one of the ancient scrolls of Herculaneum. When Papyrologist Ranocchia scanned his scrolls, he said he did Mocella one better.

Bill Whitaker: Has anyone else found anything as clear as this?

Graziano Ranocchia: Nothing like this.

Graziano Ranocchia: Peys theye, namely, "They would be persuaded." This is a--

Bill Whitaker: Would be persuaded.

Graziano Ranocchia: Yeah, right.

Brent Seales is not persuaded.

Bill Whitaker: You don't believe that?

Brent Seales: Hey, I engage in wishful thinking all the time. But at the end of the day, I'm a scientist. And wishful thinking is-- is not what science is based on. I was unable to replicate their results. And so far I've not heard from anyone who's been able to replicate them.

But with their findings published in scientific journals, the Italian scholars savored their achievements. Mocella considers Brent Seales' criticism sour grapes.

Bill Whitaker: Brent Seales looked at your latest findings and he says he doesn't see any letters.

Vito Mocella: I know, I don't know why.

Bill Whitaker: You don't know why?

Vito Mocella: I don't know why.

Brent Seales: I guess my threshold is somewhat different. When I see writing, you know, it should line up. It should be more than a letter or two. You ought to be able to see text that looks like something you can actually read.

Since he couldn't get access to the Herculaneum scrolls, Seales looked elsewhere to prove his algorithms and software. That led him to Jerusalem and this charred fragment, a 1,700-year-old scroll from a burned synagogue near the Dead Sea.

Brent Seales: Is there a line up here?

Israeli archaeologists didn't expect much, but what Seales' software revealed was like a miracle.

Bill Whitaker: What was it?

Brent Seales: Well, it was the Bible.

He resurrected all the surviving Hebrew script, the oldest text of the Bible as we know it today.

Brent Seales: The first two chapters of Leviticus in a scroll that, prior to that-- was assumed to be nothing or so badly damaged no one would ever know.

Bill Whitaker: This is what you hope to see in the Herculaneum scrolls?

Brent Seales: Absolutely. This is actually an identifiable text.

Following his breakthrough in Jerusalem, even Graziano Rannochia admits Brent Seales' software is brilliant. Now the Naples library, which wouldn't let Seales get his hands on the scrolls, is considering granting him access. He's convinced the secrets of Herculaneum, locked away in the scrolls for 2,000 years, are just within reach.

Produced by Marc Lieberman and Sabina Castelfranco. Associate producer, Michael Kaplan.


Scientists Unlock Secrets of Ancient Scrolls Near Pompeii

S crolls charred in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii are being read for the first time in almost 2,000 years, thanks to new X-ray technology.

The scrolls were recovered about 260 years ago from the ruins of the ancient Roman city Herculaneum, near Pompeii, preserved in a grand villa believed to be owned by the family of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, the New York Times reports.

In the famous eruption, they were burned black by a blast of hot gas and had been thought to be indecipherable, since any attempt to unroll the brittle scrolls would destroy them.

But thanks to the new, advanced imaging technology, scientists in Naples, Italy have begun to decipher the first lines of two scrolls. CNET reports that the X-rays are so powerful that researchers analyzed the handwriting to determine the author of one of the scrolls, Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. These scrolls are just a small piece of what is thought to be still buried in the library of the Herculaneum villa, and this breakthrough could lead to the rediscovery of many long-lost texts by Rome and Greece’s most famous philosophers, according to the NYT.

The results appeared in the scientific journal Nature.

&ldquoThis study, without compromising the physical integrity of the roll, has not merely discovered traces of the ink inside it, but has also helped identify with a certain likelihood the style of handwriting used in the text, along with its author,&rdquo the researchers conclude in the report.

&ldquoIt holds out the promise that many philosophical works form the library of the &lsquoVilla dei Papiri&rsquo, the contents of which have so far remained unknown, may in future be deciphered without damaging the papyrus in any way.”


World's oldest library: X-rays unlock secrets of 2000-year-old scrolls

Scientists have succeeded in reading parts of a series of ancient scrolls that were buried in a volcanic eruption almost 2,000 years ago.

Berlin: Scientists have succeeded in reading parts of an ancient scroll that was buried in a volcanic eruption almost 2,000 years ago, holding out the promise that the world's oldest surviving library may one day reveal all of its secrets.

The scroll is among hundreds retrieved from the remains of a lavish villa at Herculaneum, which along with Pompeii was one of several Roman towns that were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.

Some of the texts from what is called the Villa of the Papyri have been deciphered since they were discovered in the 1750s. But many more remain a mystery to science because they were so badly damaged that unrolling the papyrus they were written on would have destroyed them completely.

"The papyri were completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material," said Vito Mocella, a theoretical scientist at the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR) in Naples who led the latest project.

Previous attempts to peer inside the scrolls failed to yield any readable texts because the ink used in ancient times was made from a mixture of charcoal and gum. This makes it indistinguishable from the burned papyrus.

An ancient scroll, completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material, is displayed at the Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015. AP

Mocella and his colleagues decided to try a method called X-ray phase contrast tomography that had previously been used to examine fossils without damaging them.

Phase contrast tomography takes advantage of subtle differences in the way radiation — such as X-rays — passes through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink.

Using lab time at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, the researchers found they were able to decipher several letters, proving that the method could be used to read what's hidden inside the scrolls.

"Our goal was to show that the technique is sensitive to the writing," said Mocella. In a further step, the scientists compared the handwriting to that of other texts, allowing them to conclude that it was likely the work of Philodemus, a poet and Epicurean philosopher who died about a century before the volcanic eruption.

The next challenge will be to automate the laborious process of scanning the charred lumps of papyrus and deciphering the texts inside them, so that some 700 further scrolls stored in Naples can be read, Mocella said.

Scholars studying the Herculaneum texts say the new technique, which was detailed in an article published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, may well mark a breakthrough for their efforts to unlock the ancient philosophical ideas hidden from view for almost two millennia.

"It's a philosophical library of Epicurean texts from a time when this philosophy influenced the most important classical Latin authors, such as Virgil, Horace and Cicero," said Juergen Hammerstaedt, a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Cologne, Germany, who was not involved in the project.

"There needs to be much work before one can virtually unroll carbonized papyrus because one will have to develop a digital method that will allow us to follow the layers," he said. "But in the 260 years of Herculaneum papyrology it is certainly a remarkable year."


Watch the video: Raw: X-ray Unlocks Secrets of Ancient Scroll