roman scroll

2,000-year-old Roman scrolls to be ‘virtually unwrapped’ with machine learning

Image credit: pa

A pair of 2,000-year-old Roman scrolls will be 'virtually unwrapped' by a team at the UK’s national synchrotron science facility in Oxfordshire.

Gaining access to the contents of the ancient scrolls without physically unwrapping them is a tricky task.

The scientists will use a powerful light source coupled with special techniques to peer inside the two complete scrolls and four fragments from the damaged Herculaneum scrolls.

The four fragments contain many layers and visible features, such as exposed writing on the top, will provide the key data needed to develop the next iteration of the team’s 'virtual unwrapping' software pipeline, a machine-learning algorithm that will enable the visualisation of carbon ink.

After decades of effort, team leader Professor Brent Seales thinks the scans are the best chance yet to reveal the elusive contents of these 2,000-year-old papyri.

“Diamond Light Source is an absolutely crucial element in our long-term plan to reveal the writing from damaged materials, as it offers unparalleled brightness and control for the images we can create, plus access to a brain trust of scientists who understand our challenges and are eager to help us succeed,” he said.

“Texts from the ancient world are rare and precious and they simply cannot be revealed through any other known process.”

The use of carbon ink is one of the main reasons these scrolls have evaded deciphering, according to Seales. Unlike metal-based inks, such as the iron gall used to write medieval documents, carbon ink has a density similar to that of the carbonised papyrus on which it sits. Therefore, it appears invisible in X-ray scans.

The scrolls, which resemble charred logs, were buried and carbonised by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which wiped out the nearby ancient city of Pompeii.

They are too fragile to unfurl and researchers say they represent the perfect storm of important content, massive damage, extreme fragility and difficult-to-detect ink.

The famous papyri were discovered in 1752 near the Bay of Naples, in an ancient Roman villa believed to belong to the family of Julius Caesar.

The majority of the 1,800 scrolls reside at the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli, although a few were offered as gifts to dignitaries by the King of Naples and wound up at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the British Library and the Institut de France.

Seales said: “We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualisation.

“First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits.”

The technology amplifies the ink signal, recognising exactly where the ink is using photographs of opened fragments. It can then be used on data from the still-rolled scrolls to identify the hidden ink and make it more prominently visible to any reader.

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