The Herculaneum scrolls are ancient manuscripts thought to contain works from some of most significant names in Greek philosophy, such as Epicurus, Philodemus and Chrysippus. Some of them probably represent the only surviving copies of their kind. They're culturally and historically priceless.
The only problem? The scrolls can't be unrolled without also being destroyed, making them impossible to read. Even a light wind threatens to reduce them to ash. Their secrets represent one of the greatest archaeological teasers in history.
The secret to the scrolls' preservation is also the reason for their fragility: They were carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, the same eruption that famously buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in a pyroclastic flow, leaving it frozen in time.
But now researchers from the University of Kentucky have devised a way to peer inside these mysterious papyri without having to touch them. Their Digital Restoration Initiative team uses advanced imaging techniques to go through the pages of the book. A device called a synchotron accelerates electrons so fast that they emit light 10 billion times brighter than the sun, according to CNN.
The imaging technique eventually will allow researchers to read the wrapped-up scroll. It's a process they described in a research paper published in the journal Plos One earlier this year. Researchers estimate it could take them six months to read the scrolls using the new technology.
An ink discovery
This isn't the first time researchers have tried to use high-tech devices to read the scrolls. Several years ago, scientists from the European Radiation Synchrotron Facility worked on unraveling the mystery using an X-ray beam "100 billion times brighter than anything used in a hospital," reports Science Alert.
This analysis didn't allow scientists to actually read the scrolls, but it allowed them to make one surprising discovery: The scrolls were originally written using metallic ink, a writing technology that scientists didn't know existed at the time the scrolls were penned.
"For nearly 2,000 years, we thought we knew everything, or almost everything, about the composition of antique ink used to write on papyrus. The highly specialized studies carried out at the European synchrotron show us that we must be wary of our ideas and that the ink also contained metal, notably lead in sizable quantities," Daniel Delattre, one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian.
The finding wasn't just an historical curiosity. To get a handle on just how special these scrolls are, consider that the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus is attested to have written over 700 works, but none of them have ever been found; all are lost, with the exception of a few fragments quoted by other authors. But segments of Chrysippus' works have been identified amongst the few fragments of the Herculaneum papyri that have been deciphered. In other words, it's possible that these scrolls represent the only existing complete works left from this philosopher.
Who knows what other great works could be hiding in the charred, delicate pages? It's an archaeological detective story 2,000 years in the making, and now there's hope that it might finally have a solution in our lifetimes.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in March 2016.