Trying to read scrolls that can’t be read

The Economist: In 1752 Camillo Paderni, an artist who had been put in charge of the growing pile of antiquities being dug up at Herculaneum, a seaside town near Naples, wrote to a certain Dr Mead, who then wrote to the Royal Society in London reporting that “there were found many volumes of papyrus but turned to a sort of charcoal, and so brittle, that being touched, it fell to ashes. Yet by His Majesty’s orders he made many trials to open them, but all to no purpose; excepting some scraps containing some words.”

The excavation at Herculaneum — which, like nearby Pompeii, was buried in 79AD under ash from Mount Vesuvius — had uncovered a literary time capsule. What came to be called the Villa of the Papyri contained a library of perhaps 2,000 books, the only such collection known to have been preserved from antiquity.

Actually reading these scrolls has, however, proved both tricky and destructive — until now. For a paper just published in Nature Communications, by Vito Mocella of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems, in Naples, describes a way to decipher them without unrolling them.

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