Ancient Roman scrolls meet 21st century technology in bid to unlock secrets

A pair of 2,000-year-old scrolls from an ancient Roman town will be virtually unwrapped using sophisticated technology in the UK.

Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility in the heart of Oxfordshire, scanned a collection of the Herculaneum scrolls owned by the Institut de France.

Using the powerful light source and special techniques experts have developed, the researchers will analyse two complete scrolls and four fragments.

After decades of effort, artefacts decoder Professor Brent Seales thinks the scans represent his team’s best chance yet to reveal the elusive contents of the ancient papyri.

Side view of an Herculaneum scroll
Side view of a Herculaneum scroll (The Digital Restoration Initiative, University of Kentucky/PA)

The scrolls, which resemble charred logs, were buried and carbonised by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which wiped out the nearby ancient city of Pompeii.

They are too fragile to unfurl and researchers say they represent the perfect storm of important content, massive damage, extreme fragility, and difficult-to-detect ink.

Prof Seales, director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky, said: “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 cannot be revealed through any other known process.”

The famous papyri were discovered in 1752 in an ancient Roman villa near the Bay of Naples believed to belong to the family of Julius Caesar.

End view of an Herculaneum scroll (Diamond, the UK’s national synchrotron science/PA)
End view of a Herculaneum scroll (The Digital Restoration Initiative, University of Kentucky/PA)

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, Prof 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 – 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’s “virtual unwrapping” software pipeline.

This is an algorithm that will enable the visualisation of carbon ink.

Prof 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 (Diamond, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility/PA)
One of four fragments from the Herculaneum Scrolls (Courtesy of The Digital Restoration Initiative, University of Kentucky/PA)

Prof Seales said: “We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualisation.

“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.”

The technology amplifies the ink signal recognising exactly where the ink is using photographs of opened fragments.

It can then be used on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader, Prof Seales explained.

The I12 beamline or JEEP (Joint Engineering, Environmental, and Processing) beamline, at Diamond is a high energy X-ray beamline for imaging, diffraction and scattering.

Dr Thomas Connolley, the principal Beamline scientist, said : “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.”