Papyrus rolls buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD were discovered 260 years ago in the ruins of Herculaneum. But they're so fragile that it's never been possible to read them without inadvertently destroying them — until now.

As a newly published scientific paper in Nature Communications reports:

In recent years, new imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls. Until now, specialists have been unable to view the carbon-based ink of these papyri, even when they could penetrate the different layers of their spiral structure. Here for the first time, we show that X-ray phase-contrast tomography can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them.

Advertisement

The video below demonstrates how this "non-invasive" technique works.

As for the content of the scrolls, the Smithsonian reports:

Most of the scrolls that have been unwrapped so far are Epicurean philosophical texts written by Philodemus — prose and poetry that had been lost to modern scholars until the library was found. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who developed a school of thought in the third century B.C. that promoted pleasure as the main goal of life, but in the form of living modestly, foregoing fear of the afterlife and learning about the natural world. Born in the first century B.C. in what is now Jordan, Philodemus studied at the Epicurean school in Athens and became a prominent teacher and interpreter of the philosopher's ideas.

Modern scholars debate whether the scrolls were part of Philodemus' personal collection dating to his time period, or whether they were mostly copies made in the first century A.D.

Advertisement

The uses of X-ray phase-contrast tomography are, of course, not limited to volcano-damaged scrolls; any book or document preserved in an extremely fragile state could benefit from the technique.

Photo via Smithsonian.