The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed precious Roman documents, along with the city of Pompeii. Now scholars have discovered a new way to read the scorched remnants of these ancient texts.

In Utah, Brigham Young University researchers are using light-imaging technology originally designed for NASA to clean up the scrolls, making it possible to read documents dating back more than 2,000 years.

“Some scholars have told me they take 2 or 3 weeks to read a line of text,” says project leader Steven Booras. “When that first image came up, I have to admit I was thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got something here.'”

The scrolls were found in a villa belonging to Julius Caesar’sfather-in-law. The lava that buried the villa kept the papyri intact, but they were so carbonized by the heat when they were first discovered in the 1750s that archaeologists thought they were charcoal and threw many of themaway. Scholars tried to separate the rock-hard pages using everything from corrosive chemicals to saws.

Eventually, about 1,700 scrolls were unrolled and stored in a Naples museum, but it was impossible to read more than a few words. But using NASA technology, the fragments look as if they were written last week. “To have a scholar gasp-that’s quite a thrill,” says Booras.

To create the images, Booras takes pictures of each papyrus with a high-tech digital camera using filters that limit the band of light. Most often, he gets the best results with infrared light, which the ink seems to reflectmost brightly.

“I once spent a full hour or more looking at a scrap of papyrus,” says Richard Janko, a classicist at the University College in London. “This passage was dead black; we went over it and over it and all we could see was a few letters.With this technology, we may be able to rebuild the whole thing.”

The technology has already been used to decode religious texts found at a Byzantine church in Jordan and to uncover writing behind ancient murals in an Aztec temple in Mexico. The researchers also plan to examine ancient writings belonging to the Vatican.

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