09 February 2015

Reading Ancient Scrolls

After working for more than 10 years on unlocking an ancient piece of history, what lies inside damaged Herculaneum scrolls, University of Kentucky Department of Computer Science researchers will accomplish the next step in allowing the world to read the scrolls, which cannot be physically opened. A major development in the venture, they are building software that will visualize the scrolls' writings as they would be if unrolled. A breakthrough not only in digital imaging techniques, the first-of-its-kind software could also have profound impacts on history and literature. They say that each scroll may well be the only remaining copy as of yet unknown literature from the Classical era. Each scroll is 20 to 30 feet long and estimates each to contain at least 3,000 words.

The scrolls aren't your typical 2,000-year old papyri manuscripts; they were carbonized in the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption of A.D. 79, and later discovered as charred clumps in the Villa of the Papyri in the ancient Italian city of Herculaneum beginning in 1752. When attempting to open, the artifacts would often shatter beyond repair. To reveal the works inside the remaining intact scrolls, researchers from the Institut de France, knew that ‘virtual unrolling’ was the only way. After successfully creating 2D images of two Herculaneum scrolls in 2009 but not being able to detect the ink in them, researchers believe they have recently identified ink in the scrolls after applying an x-ray method often used in the medical and archaeology communities.

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