Antiquities

Finding a new key to ancient scrolls

Researchers expect to unlock hidden treasures using the recently found key that may unlock the library in the town of Herculaneum (destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius). The library is expected to give them access to scrolls, which would give crucial information once deciphered. Researchers have also found newer techniques to read through wrapped scrolls and understand what is written. While "the scrolls that have been opened pertain mostly to Greek philosophy and contain several works by Epicurus and his adherent Philodemus. But the library may also have had a Latin section. This could contain some of the many lost works of Roman history and literature."

Read an excerpt of the article written by Nicholas Wade:

Researchers have found a key that may unlock the only library of classical antiquity to survive along with its documents, raising at least a possibility of recovering vanished works of ancient Greek and Roman authors such as the lost books of Livy’s history of Rome. The library is that of a villa in Herculaneum, a town that was destroyed in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that obliterated nearby Pompeii. Though Pompeii was engulfed by lava, a mix of superhot gases and ash swept over Herculaneum, preserving the documents in a grand villa that probably belonged to the family of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Though the hot gases did not burn the many papyrus rolls in the villa’s library, they turned them into cylinders of carbonized plant material. Many attempts have been made to unroll the carbonized scrolls since they were excavated in 1752. But all were highly destructive, and scholars eventually decided to leave the scrolls alone in the hope that better methods would be invented. More than 300 scrolls survive more or less intact, with many more fragments. Researchers led by Vito Mocella, of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy, now say that for the first time, they can read letters inside the scrolls without unrolling them. Using a laserlike beam of X-rays from the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France, they were able to pick up the very slight contrast between the carbonized papyrus fibers and the ancient ink, soot-based and also made of carbon. The contrast has allowed them to recognize individual Greek letters from the interior of the roll, Dr. Mocella’s team reported on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. ‘‘At least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally,’’ Dr. Mocella said in an interview. His team is considering several ways to refine the power of their technique. ‘‘If the technology is perfected, it will be a real leap forward,’’ said Richard Janko, a classical scholar at the University of Michigan who has translated some of the few scrolls that can be read. ...Read more