Changing History: CT Scans Help Unravel Mystery of 2000-Year-Old Scrolls

Rising from the ashes of an ancient volcanic eruption, 21st-century technology is helping to uncover the mystery locked inside scrolls that are over 2,000-years-old.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D, it destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, burying the ancient metropolis under 13 to 20 feet of volcanic ash. The nearby town of Herculaneum suffered the same fate. One of the more mysterious relics from that natural disaster that has intrigued historians since their discovery in the 1750s is a set of papyrus scrolls that were somewhat preserved by the hot gas and volcanic ash.

The scrolls have come to be known as the Herculaneum scrolls, and to the naked eye, they don’t look like much more than a log-shaped piece of coal. It’s only upon closer inspection that one notices the charred rolled-up sheets of papyrus.

“You look at the end and you can see the circular markings of how it’s been rolled, but it looks more like the growth marks of a tree,” said Brent Seales, professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky.

Unlocking a Mystery

Physically unraveling the scrolls is impossible and would most certainly destroy them, forever ruining any chance of learning their contents. Around 1,800 scrolls were initially discovered, but only around 300 have survived efforts to read them. Seales has made it his mission for over two decades to find a way to read the scrolls and has experimented with using computer tomography (CT) scanning to get a glimpse inside.

Seales first began working with CT scanning in the mid-1990s when he assisted the British Library in scanning and preserving Beowulf, after its 1,000-year-old pages had been damaged by fire and the passage of time. The software allowed for virtual flattening of the pages and gave the team access to read and restore the damaged text.

It’s the same sort of technology that doctors use to see inside the human body and Seales is working to apply it to the Herculaneum scrolls. Getting a shot at applying this method hasn’t been easy though. For starters, the scrolls are of course locked away and as Seales puts it, getting his hands on them has been “somewhere in the vicinity of nearly impossible.”

Understandably, curators are reluctant to allow people to work on the scrolls because they’re so fragile and so many have already been damaged.

Seales finally got his chance though after he published a paper detailing his proposed method for reading the scrolls, using a mega-powerful X-ray known as a synchrotron that emits a beam 100-billion times stronger than any hospital X-ray.

The Institut de France, one of the four major holders of the scrolls, was the only outfit to step forward and give Seales a shot. The two scrolls Seales was given permission to X-ray were known as P.Herc.Paris 3 and P.Herc.Paris 4, or as Seales dubbed them, Fat Bastard and Banana Boy.

The initial scanning didn’t reveal the breakthrough Seales had hoped for because the software wasn’t prepared to process the terabytes of data from the scan. He was technically able to look inside the scrolls, but determining what he was looking at just wasn’t possible.

The Journey Continues

The real breakthrough came when Seales was allowed to scan a 1,700-year-old charred scroll that was found in a burned synagogue near the Dead Sea. What it revealed was simply amazing — the Bible. Specifically, the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus. The find proved to be the earliest example of Bible text after the Dead Sea Scrolls.

With that success under his belt, Seales has continued on with his mission. The Naples library which had previously denied him access is now considering allowing him to scan their set of scrolls. Even though the process has moved at a glacial pace, Seales is ever determined to unravel the mystery of the Herculaneum scrolls that Mount Vesuvius covered in ash so long ago.

“We’re going to get there,” said Seales.


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