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A way of deciphering Herculaneum's scrolls

Herculaneum was one of the towns buried under volcanic ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, although Pompeii is probably better known to most people.

One of the discoveries made by archaeologists at Herculaneum was a vast library of around 900 scrolls that had been carbonised by the hot ash but otherwise preserved. It would be great if the scrolls could be unwound and the contents read, but this has proved to be impossible due to the fragility of the material.

However, scientists at the University of Kentucky may have a solution. The process involves the use of high-energy X-rays and artificial intelligence in the form of machine-learning algorithms.

Work is underway on two of the scrolls. Should the method prove to be successful, it is hoped that eventually all the scrolls will yield their secrets.

Past attempts to decipher ancient texts have often led to somewhat disappointing results, in that the writing turned out to be a laundry list or an invoice, but in this case it would appear that historians might be able to learn what the ordinary citizens of a Roman town chose for their leisure reading from the local library!

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  1. It seems that writing was invented first and foremost for administrative, bureaucratic purposes. Most of the surviving ancient clay tablets in Sumerian, Babylonian and Ugaritic (these were my area of study) fall into that category. But luckily, the function of writing was later extended to include literary and mythical material – luckily for us! Hopefully the Herculaneum scrolls will yield such treasures 🙂

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