Metallic Ink Discovered in Ancient Scrolls Buried by Mount Vesuvius

New discovery may help researchers read ancient scrolls

herculaneum scroll
A charred fragment of one of the Herculaneum Scrolls. E. Brun

For centuries, historians have been puzzled by a tantalizing set of scrolls buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. Now, researchers have discovered that the Herculaneum Scrolls were written with lead-based ink, which might allow them to read information that was once thought to be lost to time.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted, it not only demolished Pompeii, but also the nearby Roman settlement of Herculaneum. Centuries later, hundreds of scrolls were uncovered in the area 1752, but many were too damaged by age and burns to risk unrolling. Thanks to one of the world’s most sensitive X-ray microscopes, scientists have discovered that the Herculaneum Scrolls were written with metallic ink, which could help them develop new techniques for reading the scrolls without damaging them further, Sonia van Gilder Cooke reports for the New Scientist.

“This really opens up the possibility of being able to read these scrolls,” Graham Davis, an expert in 3D X-ray imaging at Queen Mary University of London tells van Gilder Cooke. “If this is typical of this scroll or other scrolls, than that is very good news.”

A group of physicists used an advanced instrument called a synchrotron to conduct a highly detailed X-ray scan of several samples taken from the scrolls, which were written on papyrus sheaves. The device, which produces X-rays that are 100 billion times brighter than those used in hospitals, not only helped decipher some writing on the scrolls, but indicated that the ink used to write them could contain lead, Helen Briggs reports for BBC News. Now, researchers might be able to use these findings to calibrate the synchrotron to decipher more of the lost texts.

This isn’t the first time researchers have suggested that the Herculaneum Scrolls were written in lead-based ink. In 2009, a computer scientist studying the scrolls at the University of Kentucky in Lexington found traces of lead in the ink. However, researchers were cautious, due to the extent of the scrolls damage and the fact that most historians believed that lead-based ink wasn’t invented until about 400 years after the scrolls were written, van Gilder Cooke reports.

“For nearly 2000 years, we thought we knew everything, or almost everything, about the composition of antique ink used to write on papyrus,” study author Daniel Delattre tells Tim Radford for the Guardian.

Historians believed that most ink used at the time the scrolls were written were carbon-based. However, the new scans indicate that lead was added to the ink, possibly to speed up the time it took for it to dry. While more research needs to be done to see if more of the scrolls were written with lead-based ink, with this new data scientists might be able to calibrate the synchrotron to pick up the lead remnants in the scrolls, allowing them to decipher the texts without having to unroll them, Rossella Lorenzi reports for Discovery News.

"Until now, I hadn't expected to be able to read any of these scrolls from the inside, without damage to them, in my own lifetime,” Dirk Obbink, an Oxford University papyrologist and classicist, tells Briggs. “But now I do."