Posted in: News– February 1, 2015
Scientists are on the verge of being able to read a library of ancient Roman scrolls for the first time. The collection of scrolls, from Herculaneum, were carbonised in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD. They form one of the most complete libraries from the ancient world still in existence, but many of the sealed manuscripts are too fragile to be opened and read. Now, new imaging techniques are being used to “virtually unroll” the scrolls.
So far, the project has taken more than a decade. While several scrolls were scanned in 2009, recent work using X-ray phase contrast tomography has allowed the ink markings to be seen for the first time. In the next stage of the project, the images will be combined, reconstructing whole texts. Fragments containing single words have already been identified. However, the scale and complexity of the task means that new software must be built to carry out the analysis. The work is being lead by Professor Brent Seales, Chair of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky.
“We have a ton of data from all of our preliminary work, and from the 2009-2010 work,” Seales said. “We’re using that data to build software so that we can pull out large sections and flatten them. To date, no tool exists that can accomplish that. The software we’re building will be the first to visualize data in that way, and it’s crucial to uncovering the works inside the Herculaneum scrolls.”
The scrolls were discovered at the Villa of the Papyri over a period of time beginning in 1752. While a few of the least fragile scrolls have been read by more conventional methods, the new imaging methods have given researchers a much less destructive way to access the contents of the remaining scrolls. Seales has speculated that the excavation of the villa remains incomplete. “Many believe that a treasure trove of undiscovered scrolls are waiting there to be unearthed.”