Scientists hope to virtually read 3,000yr-old papyrus scrolls too fragile to unroll

May 25th, 2009 - 5:23 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, May 25 (ANI): A computer scientist from the University of Kentucky hopes that modern digital technology will enable him to read two of the hundreds of fragile papyrus scrolls found in a villa at Herculaneum, thought to have been owned at one time by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, and unlock secrets they have held for almost 2,000 years.

Brent Seales, the Gill professor of engineering in UK’s computer science department, plans to use an X-Ray CT scanning system to collect interior images of the scrolls’ rolled-up pages, hoping to later digitally “unroll” them on a computer screen so that they become readable to scholars.

The scrolls stored at the French National Academy in Paris contain ancient philosophical and learned writings, but they have been so badly damaged by the volcanic heat over centuries that they crumble when scholars try to open.

“It will be a challenge because today these things look more like charcoal briquets than scrolls. But we’re using a non-invasive scanning system, based on medical technology, that lets you slice through an object and develop a three-dimensional data set without having to open it, just as you would do a CT scan on a human body,” TMCnet quoted Seales as saying last week.

The researchers will spend July working on the two scrolls in Paris.

They will use a system was developed at UK through the Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration (EDUCE) project, which Seales launched through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

If their system works as well as hoped, it may provide a safe new way to decipher and preserve more scrolls from Herculaneum, as well as other ancient books, manuscripts and documents that are too fragile to be opened.

“No one has yet really figured out a way to open them. If Brent is successful it would be a huge, potentially monumental step forward,” says Roger Macfarlane, a professor of classics at Brigham Young University who also has worked on scrolls from Herculaneum.

Seales, however, admits that there are hurdles, the biggest being the carbon-based ink thought to have been used on the scrolls.

He says that since the papyrus in the scrolls was turned to carbon by the fury of Vesuvius, it might be impossible to visually separate the writing from the pages, even with powerful computer programs.

“There is a chance that we won’t be able to do it with our current machine, and that we’ll have to re-engineer some things. But if that’s the case, that’s what we will do,” Seales said. (ANI)

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