In an extraordinary feat of scientific innovation, researchers have managed to decode the first full passages from the notoriously elusive Herculaneum scrolls. Housed in the National Library of Naples, these ancient scrolls, carbonised by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, have posed an enigmatic challenge to scientists over the centuries due to their delicate and fragile state. However, new developments in X-ray technology and data algorithms have allowed for a groundbreaking first decode.
The Herculaneum scrolls differ from typical archaeological artefacts in that they require an intricate process to separate their rich past and invaluable information from the dark ash’s imprisonment. While the volcanic eruption destroyed the city of Herculaneum, it also inadvertently preserved these papyrus scrolls. However, their carbonised state and the consequential brittleness complicates the process of physical unrolling, prompting researchers to seek alternative methods of analysis.
Researchers converged on the use of X-ray phase-contrast tomography (XPCT), a non-invasive scanning method that allows for a detailed examination of an object’s internal structure without risking damage. In combination with this, data algorithms were applied to translate the XPCT scans into legible text. Briefly, the researchers modified existing automated methods for XPCT data analysis and significantly improved their ability to distinguish between ink and papyrus in the scrolls.
The incredible achievement is the revelation of specific, coherent passages, marking a decisive turning point in the study of these ancient scrolls. Researchers disclosed the unveiling from the text, thought to be written by Greek philosopher Philodemus, rich snippets of cultural and societal insights from antiquity, replete with comments on the atmosphere, lifestyle and intellectualism of that era. More fascinatingly, the material seems to address Epicurean philosophy, a belief system centred on the pursuit of happiness through intellectual and moral virtue, providing an intriguing window into the ideological fabric of ancient society.
However, the joy of this revolutionary disclosure is not without its hurdles. The black-ink scribing on the darker, carbonised papyrus background poses an ongoing challenge for the researchers, given the difficulty in discerning such subtle contrasts. The next move is outlined by the researchers to be the development of a software pipeline to streamline the data processing, to iterate and refine the process, and to decode the remaining scrolls. Also, hopes are raised for the many other artefacts charred by Vesuvius’s eruption, that this new approach will prove beneficial.
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