Fire has destroyed countless books, scrolls, artifacts and works of art through the centuries. But on (very) rare occasions, fire preserves.

This is one of those unlikely cases.

In 79 A.D., the destructive power of Vesuvius rained down on the unfortunate cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, freezing them in time — and giving 21st century archaeologists a macabre window into the past. Among the petrified human remains, priceless artwork, and other historical relics, researchers discovered 6 charred scrolls in the ruins of Herculaneum. These scrolls are burnt so badly that they look almost unrecognizable, and unrolling them would almost certainly destroy them irreparably in the process.

What the scrolls look like now. Image source: CNN. Link to full article in the text of this blog post.

But science has figured out another way. According to CNN: “The process is called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. It virtually unwraps the scrolls and flattens out digital sheets of the physical carbonized document.”

Although lesser known that Pompeii, Herculaneum was wealthier and better preserved.

The same article goes on to say, “[t]he content from two of the scrolls — written by the ancient philosopher Philodemus on the subject of political rhetoric — is currently being translated from ancient Greek into English and will soon be published in a scientific journal.”

Thanks to this method, hopefully soon we’ll be able to read ancient documents that had been lost for nearly two millenia. With any luck, future excavations will lead to the discovery of more scrolls, and more insight into this ancient world. 

Featured image: Mount Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii. Source: Wikimedia commons.