Physics Reveals What’s In Herculaneum’s Incinerated Ancient Scrolls

A synchrotron has just unlocked the writing inside ancient Herculaneum’s incinerated scrolls.

If you’re studying a long-lost culture, there’s hardly anything more tantalizing than having in-hand papyrus scrolls written by its citizens. What insights would these documents hold about who those people were? And there’s hardly anything more frustrating than if the scrolls have been burnt to such a crisp that straightening them out to read could cause them to crumble, lost forever.


This is just the situation papyrologist Daniel Delattre was in. In his case the scrolls are from the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, and they were discovered about 250 years ago. The scrolls were written before Mt. Vesuvius’ catastrophic eruption in 79 A.D. when its pyroclastic cloud engulfed and killed the people living there and in Pompeii. In Pompeii, of course, citizens died encased in hot ash. For years no one realized anyone had even died in Herculaneum because there were no bodies—it turns out theirs had been completely vaporized by the 300-plus-degree heat.

elfqrin

The scrolls are from Herculaneum’s library, and are so burnt they look simply like charred chunks of wood.

BBC

At first scientists tried to simply unroll a few of them, but they broke down during the process, leaving little bits of papyrus from which a handful of words could be read, and ashes.

Georgie Knaggs

In 2013 electronic engineer and physicist Vito Mocella got the idea to try scanning a scroll in a synchrotron, a type of particle accelerator. His thought was that the synchrotron could generate a coherent x-ray light that would allow them to see the letters inside the charred object. They ran a scroll through the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France to generate a layer-sensitive x-ray image.

Henrich Benutzer

In a stroke of luck, the scroll’s authors had used a kind of ink that sits on top of the papyrus surface, creating a very slight relief from which characters can be made out, a tiny bit at a time.

While the contents of the scrolls haven’t been deciphered yet, work continues, and this is obviously an exciting breakthrough. Oddly, the very first pair of verbs Delattre and Mocelli read—according to this video from The Atlantic—were “cadrebbe” and “direbbe,” which translate to “would say” and “would fall.” The writer could well have been referring to the soon-deadly mountain towering over them.

 

Headline image: Joseph Wright of Derby

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Saying no is hard. These communication tips make it easy.

You can say 'no' to things, and you should. Do it like this.

Videos
  • Give yourself permission to say "no" to things. Saying yes to everything is a fast way to burn out.
  • Learn to say no in a way that keeps the door of opportunity open: No should never be a one-word answer. Say "No, but I could do this instead," or, "No, but let me connect you to someone who can help."
  • If you really want to say yes but can't manage another commitment, try qualifiers like "yes, if," or "yes, after."
Keep reading Show less

Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

Strange Maps
  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less