Quantcast
Connect with us

UK particle accelerator used to reveal secrets of 2,000-year-old papyrus

Published

on

A leading science facility in the English countryside is helping in a bid to decipher Roman-era scrolls carbonized in the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.

Researchers led by antiquities decoder Professor Brent Seales have turned to Diamond, Britain’s national synchrotron in Didcot, Oxfordshire, to examine the papyri, which are described as “fragile like butterfly wings”.

ADVERTISEMENT

They hope the synchrotron — which harnesses the power of electrons to produce powerful scans — could now end a decades-long effort to read the historic artefacts owned by the Institut de France.

“Our normal idea of a scroll is that you can just unroll it and read it,” Seales, director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky, told AFP during a recent tour of the site in Didcot.

“But these scrolls can’t be unrolled because the carbonization makes them completely brittle and that brittle nature would damage it completely if you tried to bend it at all.”

Instead, the Diamond facility acts like a giant microscope, producing light 10 billion times brighter than the sun that allows scientists to study anything from fossils and jet engines to viruses and vaccines.

“When the beam goes through the sample, it creates the possibility of an image that we can’t really create any other way,” Seales said.

ADVERTISEMENT

– ‘Difficult to read’ –

The scrolls were discovered between 1752 and 1754 during excavations at the Herculaneum site near the Bay of Naples in southern Italy, in a house believed to have belonged to the family of Julius Caesar.

AFP / GEOFF CADDICKA fragment of the Herculaneum scroll dating back nearly 2,000 years which researchers hope to be able to decipher with the help of a high energy X-ray beamline

Unlike Pompeii, which was ravaged by lava during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, Herculanum was struck by a fiery cloud, which covered the city with ash, entombing everything intact.

ADVERTISEMENT

One of the houses — the “Villa of Papyrus” — housed an important library of more than 1,800 text scrolls.

They were preserved by the ashes but carbonized and therefore impossible to unroll.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1802, six of these rolls were donated by the king of Naples to Napoleon Bonaparte, who entrusted them to the library of the Institut de France in Paris to decipher.

But unfurling and reading them in their delicate state proved impossible, with two attempts in 1817 then in 1877 both failing.

More than a century later, in 1986, experts used a method involving chemicals to detach one scroll into several hundred small fragments.

ADVERTISEMENT

“(It was) very difficult to read,” said Yoann Brault, a researcher at the Institut’s library, noting they were not able to trace the ink used.

– ‘Extremely fragile’ –

However, advances in technology and special processes developed by Seales mean it may now be possible to virtually unwrap the Herculaneum papyri and uncover their contents.

“We rotate and view all 360 degrees around the outside (of) the object,” Seales explained.

ADVERTISEMENT

“(It) gives us the information of what was inside the object. We get that computationally, not physically.”

Transporting the “entirely burnt and extremely fragile” scrolls from Paris to southern England presented “some risks”, according to Francoise Berard, director of the Institut de France’s library.

“The ideal would be not to handle them at all but obviously we want to help in the discovery of the contents,” she said.

“Therefore we accepted certain risks of deterioration during transport but we take maximum precautions because they are fragile like butterfly wings.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Other scientists have also tried non-invasive techniques to decode the documents to varying degrees of success.

In 2014 Daniel Delattre, a researcher at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, used a type of intensive X-ray to glimpse some of the scrolls’ contents.

The method revealed Greek letters thought to be from the pen of Philodemus of Gadara, an Epicurean philosopher.

Michel Zink, of France’s Academy of Inscriptions and Letters, said such texts “have rarely been preserved” in any form.

“This is why these rolls are so important,” the historian added.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We can hope to succeed in reading entire sentences and perhaps one day, an entire text.”


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Facebook

Fire holds off Hong Kong police at campus as democracy protests escalate

Published

on

A large fire held off an apparent police advance on the Hong Kong campus where hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were holed up early Monday, hours after officers warned they may use "live rounds" if confronted by deadly weapons in a dangerous escalation of the near six-month crisis engulfing the city.

Protests have rocked the global financial hub since June, with many in the city of 7.5 million people venting fury at eroding freedoms under Chinese rule.

China has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate the dissent, and there have been concerns that Beijing could send in troops to put an end to the spiralling unrest.

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Ambassador Sondland was updating Trump officials on progress of ‘push for investigations’ — including Mulvaney

Published

on

The Wall Street Journal obtained emails showing that ahead of President Donald Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ambassador Gordon Sondland was updating officials on the strive for investigations.

Chief of staff and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was one of the main points of contact, and he replied to the email saying he would schedule the call with Zelensky.

“I talked to Zelensky just now. He is prepared to receive Potus’ call. Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone,’” Sondland wrote in an email on July 19.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

White House desperately scheduling things for Trump to do so he won’t watch the impeachment hearings

Published

on

donald trump on the phone

Given President Donald Trump worked to intimidate witnesses in real-time during the hearings on the impeachment inquiry last week, the White House is desperately searching for something that can keep him busy.

Axios reported Sunday, the presidential daily schedule will be designed to keep the president distracted with their own counter-programming.

"Trump's schedule for the coming week shows him governing," Axios reported. He'll be promoting jobs and talking about things like "art and culture."

Continue Reading
 
 
Help Raw Story Uncover Injustice. Join Raw Story Investigates for $1 and go ad-free.
close-image