Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Xray imaging and the Herculaneum Papyri

New article: Vito Mocella, Emmanuel Brun, Claudio Ferrero & Daniel Delattre, 'Revealing letters in rolled Herculaneum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging' Nature Communications 6, Article number: 5895 doi:10.1038/ncomms6895 (20.1.2015). 

Hundreds of papyrus rolls, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and belonging to the only library passed on from Antiquity, were discovered 260 years ago at Herculaneum. These carbonized papyri are extremely fragile and are inevitably damaged or destroyed in the process of trying to open them to read their contents. In recent years, new imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls. Until now, specialists have been unable to view the carbon-based ink of these papyri, even when they could penetrate the different layers of their spiral structure. Here for the first time, we show that X-ray phase-contrast tomography can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them. This attempt opens up new opportunities to read many Herculaneum papyri, which are still rolled up, thus enhancing our knowledge of ancient Greek literature and philosophy.

This article has been widely picked up in the news (e.g. here from the BBC [from where I have copied the pictures], the New York Times, National Geographic) [HT: Henryk Glogowski, thanks for the email]


  1. Somebody on the internet wondered if this technique (when perfected enough actually to read the scrolls) might also work to read papyri used in cartonnage without having to destroy the objects.

  2. in that case (Hi Josh) somebody on the internet would be asking a good question

  3. I saw the comment in the comments to the National Geographic online article, in the interest of citing my sources more accurately.