Scientists Unlock Secrets of Ancient Pompeii Scrolls

Way back in the first century, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. In the process, a library of ancient scrolls was carbonized by the extreme heat of the ash coming from the volcano.

Nearly two millennia later, a group of scientists say there might be a way of reading what was locked away in those scrolls during the eruption. Using high-energy x-rays and artificial intelligence, they may be a way to observe the texts without having to risk opening them. Professor Brent Seales, the Computer Science chair at the University of Kentucky, is leading the research:

Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not any more.

image via the Guardian, From left to right:  Jens Dopke, Brent Seales, Francoise Berard, Robert Atwood,  Christy Chapman, and Thomas Connolley.


Some experts have tried to open some of the Pompeii scrolls before. However, many have been destroyed in the process, and exposing the ancient ink to the air run the risks of fading it completely. So this time, Seales is using the power of machine learning, using algorithms to discern subtle differences between the inked and blank areas in the x-ray scans of the scrolls.


A fragment of a Herculaneum Scroll, via Andrew Brookes/Diamond Light Source Ltd

What do Seales and his team of scientists think they’ll find if they succeed?

“For the most part the writings [in opened scrolls] are Greek philosophy around Epicureanism, which was a prevailing philosophy of the day,” said Seales. Classical libraries typically had both a Greek and a Latin section, the scrolls from the Herculaneum villa could also contain some Latin text.

Dr. Dirk Obbink, another researcher and papyrologist working on the process, had this to say:

A new historical work by Seneca the Elder was discovered among the unidentified Herculaneum papyri only last year, thus showing what uncontemplated rarities remain to be discovered there.

Featured image via Diamond Light Source