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Decoding 2,000-year-old scrolls with Diamond Light Source

Ancient scrolls are being virtually “unwrapped” using the UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, combined with special techniques developed by a team from the University of Kentucky.

The 2,000-year-old Herculaneum Scrolls are world famous ancient artefacts discovered in 1752 in an ancient Roman villa near the Bay of Naples believed to belong to the family of Julius Caesar. Buried and carbonised by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the scrolls are too fragile to be opened by hand.

Using the bright, high energy X-ray beam at Diamond Light Source along with the University of Kentucky’s virtual unwrapping” software pipeline, a machine-learning algorithm will allow the carbon ink on the scrolls to be detected. The six samples scanned at Diamond include four fragments which will provide the key data needed to “train” the algorithm because they contain many layers and text is visible on the top layers.

STFC’s senior detector scientist Dr Jens Dopke provided the Kentucky team with technical expertise that allows them to use Diamond’s beamline to gather data from the scroll samples.

Dr Dopke yesterday said:

“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.”

Professor Brent Seales leads the University of Kentucky research team and said the data gathered at Diamond is a crucial step forward in allowing us to visualise and read the ancient texts.

He yesterday said: 

“Texts from the ancient world are rare and precious, and they simply cannot be revealed through any other known process. 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,”

These scroll samples are so delicate, custom-made cases were used to transport them from their home at the Institut de France in Paris to the UK, with personal supervision by Director of the Bibliothèque at the Institut de France, Madame Françoise Bérard.

Read more about this fascinating research.

The University of Kentucky’s Digital Restoration Initiative is developing software to allow the non-invasive revelation of text hidden by damage.


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