Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lead ink in the Herculaneum scrolls

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Lead ink from scrolls may unlock library destroyed by Vesuvius (New Scientist).
Lead often gets a bad press. But its discovery in ancient Graeco-Roman ink could make it easier to read an early form of publishing – precious scrolls buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Some 800 scrolls, part of the classical world’s best-surviving library, have tantalised scholars since they were unearthed in a villa in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum in 1752. About 200 are in such a delicate state that they have never been read.

Unrolling the charred scrolls can destroy them, so people have been X-raying the bundles in the hopes of discerning the writing inside. But progress has been slow – it is difficult to detect the difference between the letters and the papyrus they are written on.

Now physicist Vito Mocella of the Italian National Research Council and his colleagues have revealed lead in the ink on two Herculaneum papyri fragments held in the Institute of France in Paris.

The presence of lead means that imaging techniques could be recalibrated to pick up the metal, something at which X-rays excel.

“This really opens up the possibility of being able to read these scrolls,” says Graham Davis, a reader in 3D X-ray imaging at Queen Mary University of London. “If this is typical of this scroll or other scrolls, than that is very good news.”

Background on this longstanding project to recover the texts of the carbonized scrolls from Heculaneum is here and follow the many, many links. This development could be crucial to the success of the project. As they say, bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.