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X-rays may help us read scrolls preserved in Vesuvius' eruption

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The scrolls are too fragile to unroll — but now researchers may not have to

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Researchers may soon be able to read papyrus scrolls from a villa destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, The New York Times reports. And they won't have to unroll the fragile antiquities to do it, either. X-rays allowed researchers from the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, Italy to discover slight contrast between the paper and the ink.

about 300 scrolls are still intact The villa where the scrolls were found was in Herculaneum, one of two towns destroyed. Herculaneum was barraged by very hot gas and ashes, while the other town, Pompeii, was buried in lava. The gasses in Herculaneum didn't burn the scrolls — but they did make the scrolls exceptionally fragile. The scrolls were carbonized in the blast, and though attempts have been made to unroll them since their initial excavation in 1752, those attempts have mostly been destructive. Eventually, scholars gave up.

The scrolls — about 300 are still intact, and there are also many fragments — probably belonged to the family of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The team of researchers reported they could make out individual Greek letters. Now there's hope that ancient works that were lost might be rediscovered using the technique, once it's refined.

"At least we know there are techniques able to read inside the papyri, finally," head researcher Vito Mocella told The New York Times.