The ancient town of Herculaneum, the city destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius volcano's eruption in AD79
The ancient town of Herculaneum, the city destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius volcano's eruption in AD79The ancient town of Herculaneum, the city destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius volcano's eruption in AD79

Greek words have been deciphered from a charred Herculaneum papyrus, buried for centuries after the devastating explosion of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

Using 3D X-ray imaging techniques, physicists have detected the ink on ancient parchments. With further research, scientists believe that other scrolls could also be translated and read without unrolling the fragile material.

Herculaneum, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, was destroyed in a devastating pyroclastic explosion, along with its neighbouring town Pompeii. However, remarkable finds were preserved, including a library of scrolls excavated from one of the villas.

The villa and its library of Epicurean philosophical texts is thought to have belonged to Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Previous attempts to read the documents in previous centuries have so far failed because of the frailty of the parchments.

A team led by Dr Vito Mocella from the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, Italy, has identified a handful of Greek letters within a rolled-up scroll for the very first time.

A technique called "X-ray phase-contrast tomography (XPCT)", was used in this historic breakthrough.

Dr Mocella's team placed one of the scrolls in the path of a very bright X-ray beam from the synchrotron, and bumps on the paper rather than chemicals in the ink revealed the long-hidden letters.

"What we see is that the ink, which was essentially carbon based, is not very different from the carbonised papyrus," Dr Mocella explained to the BBC.

The ink had penetrated into the fibres of the papyrus, but stayed on top of them. "So the letters are there in relief, because the ink is still on the top."

This extra thickness - just a tenth of a millimetre - revealed the letter strokes, even after two thousand years and a catastrophic volcanic explosion.

Hidden meaning in the Herculaneum scrolls

Translating the ancient texts is still in its early days. However, using XPCT, Vito Mocella and his colleagues have revealed letters from the Greek alphabet and several distinctive words on two scrolls.

On one line, researchers spotted Greek capital letters spelling out a word meaning "would fall". On the next line, they found another Greek word meaning "would say".

The x-rays also offer clues about the author of the scrolls. On close inspection, they found that the handwriting style of the rolled-up scroll was similar to that of another Herculaneum papyrus written by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, who may have written the text in the first century BC.

The meaning of the texts has not yet been revealed but Mocella believes that it will be possible to read complete scrolls with a more powerful x-ray machine called a synchrotron.

Writing in Nature Communications, Mocella says: "This study, without compromising the physical integrity of the roll, has not merely discovered traces of the ink inside it, but has also helped identify with a certain likelihood the style of handwriting used in the text, along with its author."