Thanks to new X-ray technology, scientists may finally be able to decipher ancient scrolls that nearly 2,000 years ago were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, unlocking long-standing secrets.

In 79 AD, the ancient town of Herculaneum, along with Pompeii, was one of several Roman towns destroyed by the infamous Mt. Vesuvius eruption, which also killed thousands of people. Hundreds of papyrus scrolls, along with these sites, were covered in ash and lava. Since their discovery in the 1750s in what is called the Villa of the Papyri, the details of these scrolls have remained unknown.

Simply unrolling the scrolls could damage them beyond repair, and past attempts using X-rays have been unsuccessful because the smoke-based ink was virtually indistinguishable from the burned paper.

"They poured mercury on them, they soaked them in rosewater - all kinds of crazy stuff," Jennifer Sheridan Moss, president of the American Society of Papyrologists, told Live Science.

But now, a new technique by scientists at the Institute of Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR) in Naples offers some hope.

Lead author Vito Mocella and his colleagues tried a method called X-ray phase contrast tomography, based on differences in the way radiation passes through different substances - in this case, the papyrus and ink.

"Our goal was to show that the technique is sensitive to the writing," Mocella told The Associated Press (AP). (Scroll to read on...)

Because the letters on the papyrus are slightly raised, the X-ray waves that hit the writing would be reflected back differently compared to the underlying papyrus. So far, this technology has analyzed six scrolls, with the promise that they may decipher hundreds more and unlock ancient philosophical ideas that have been hidden from view for almost two millennia.

"It's a philosophical library of Epicurean texts from a time when this philosophy influenced the most important classical Latin authors, such as Virgil, Horace and Cicero," added Juergen Hammerstaedt, a professor of Greek and Latin, who was not involved in the research.

The new technique is described in the journal Nature Communications.

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