Herculaneum scroll: 2000-year-old scrolls with hidden secrets under investigation at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire

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Herculaneum scroll: 2000-year-old scrolls with hidden secrets under investigation at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire


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A team at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire is working to read the scrolls, which were carbonised almost 2,000 years ago as the Roman town of Herculaneum was buried in volcanic ash by Mount Vesuvius.

Now using light 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, scientists are attempting to see what’s written inside.

The process works in that some fragments from the scrolls can be taken, these fragments have identifiable ink markings on them. The team at Diamond Light Source use special machinery to work with the writing, a machine that can be effectively trained to identify, via neural network, the markings on the scrolls. Then the machine can use what it has learned through the process to digitally unwrap the full three-dimensional scroll, as explained by Professor Laurent Chapon from Diamond Light Source who goes on to state: ‘You realise that you essentially have in your hands a piece of history, it’s 2000 years old, and you are going to somehow generate knowledge from that, so that’s really exciting.’

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Professor Brent Seales from the University of Kentucky adds “We think that the 900 remaining scrolls from the Herculaneum contain potentially amazing information from the classical period. And if future excavations reveal more material, we thing this method could prove valuable for those.’

‘We also hope that we will discover previously unknown texts. Things that we have lost to antiquity, that’s actually very possible.’

The two complete scrolls and four fragments belong to the Institut de France in Paris.


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