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Professor to 'unroll' Papyrus Scrolls Buried By Vesuvius


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University of Kentucky Computer Science Professor Brent Seales

University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seales will use a non-invasive scanning system to read carbonized scrolls buried at Herculaneum like the one shown on the screen at right.

David Stephenson / Lexington Herald-Leader

University of Kentucky computer scientist Brent Seales will use an x-ray CT scanning system to collect interior images of two of the hundreds of papyrus scrolls that were buried in volcanic ash when Italy's Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The scrolls were so badly damaged that they would crumble when scholars tried to open them. The remaining scrolls have not been read or unrolled since 79 AD. Seales plans to digitally "unroll" the scrolls on a computer screen, allowing scholars to read them for the first time.

The non-invasive scanning system is based on medical technology that will enable the researchers to "slice" through an object and create a three-dimensional data set without opening the scroll. The system was developed at the University of Kentucky through the Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration project, which Seales started through a National Science Foundation grant. Experts say that if the system works as proposed, it could provide a safe way of deciphering and preserving more scrolls from ancient books, manuscripts, and documents that are too fragile to be opened.

The carbon-based ink believed to have been used on the scrolls could present a problem, particularly because they were turned to carbon by the eruption, potentially making it impossible to visually separate the writing from the pages.

From Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)
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