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Light brighter than the sun to virtually decipher ancient scrolls

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LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists at Britain's national synchrotron facility have harnessed powerful beams of light to virtually unwrap and decipher fragile scrolls dating back some 2,000 years, in a process that they hope will provide new insights into the ancient world.

The two complete scrolls and four fragments – from the so-called Herculaneum Library, the only survivor of antiquity – were buried and charred by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and are too fragile to open.

The items were examined at the Diamond Light Source facility in Oxfordshire, home of Britain's synchrotron, a particle accelerator in which beams travel a closed circuit path to produce light many times brighter than the sun.

"The idea is essentially like a CT scanner where you take a picture of a person, a three-dimensional picture of a person and you can crop it to see different organs," said Laurent Chapon, director of physical sciences at Diamond Light. Source.

“We… shine very bright light through (the parchment) and then detect on the other side a series of two-dimensional images. From this, we reconstructed a three-dimensional volume of the object … to actually read the text non-destructively, ”said Chapon.

It is difficult to see ink on the scrolls, even through a synchrotron, because it is carbon based, like the papyrus on which it is written. But scientists expect the article's density to be different when there are characters written.

By examining fragments where characters are visible, they hope to create a machine learning algorithm that decipher what is written on the scrolls.

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The data generated by the process will be analyzed by scientists at the University of Kentucky, using advanced computer techniques to decipher the contents of the scrolls.

"The Herculaneum library was the only library that survived in antiquity, so the material is extremely valuable," said Brent Seales, professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky.

"The texts of the ancient world are rare and precious, and they simply cannot be revealed by any other known process."

George Sargent report; Written by Gareth Jones Editing by Mike Collett-White

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