X-Rays Open Secrets Of Ancient Scrolls : The Two-Way Scientists have used a particle accelerator to read ancient scrolls without unrolling them. The breakthrough could potentially be used to decipher hundreds of texts.

X-Rays Open Secrets Of Ancient Scrolls

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Researchers in Europe have managed to read from an ancient scroll that was buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports this feat was all the more remarkable because the scroll was never opened.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: When Vesuvius erupted, it filled a villa near Pompeii with gas and ash. The villa's library was stacked with papyrus scrolls, and they were preserved - sort of.

BRENT SEALES: Well, to be honest, being from Kentucky, they look like pieces of coal.

BRUMFIEL: Brent Seales works at the University of Kentucky. He's held some of these scrolls.

SEALES: You look at the end, and you can see the circular markings of how it's been rolled, but it looks more like, you know, the growth marks of a tree.

BRUMFIEL: Researchers want to unroll them, but opening these scrolls is more like peeling the flaky skin of an onion.

SEALES: When you try to pull one layer off, it just breaks away from the rest. And so you have 10 million fragments after you peeled it away in that manner.

BRUMFIEL: Of the roughly 1,800 scrolls unearthed, only 300 have survived efforts to read them. And that's why this latest finding is such a breakthrough. The researchers used a particle accelerator in France to bombard a rolled-up scroll with X-rays. These X-rays were so sensitive, they could detect changes in thickness where ink had been used to write letters. The team could make out the entire Greek alphabet inside a tightly wound scroll.

SEALES: Capturing those letters, you know, that's pretty amazing in itself.

BRUMFIEL: The work appears in the journal Nature Communications. The researchers can't read whole words yet, and that's where Brent Seales will come in. He's a computer scientist. He thinks he can make a program that can distinguish which letters belong to which layers so the scrolls can finally be deciphered.

SEALES: Yeah, I do believe that with this remarkable breakthrough, we're going to get there.

BRUMFIEL: It may take a little longer. But Seales thinks these 2,000-year-old scrolls are worth the wait. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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