An ancient scroll buried beneath Mount Vesuvius has been read without ever having been opened. The scroll, which found with other items in Herculaneum—a town near Pompeii that was destroyed by the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE—was preserved by the hot gas and ash of the volcano.

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“To be honest, being from Kentucky, they look like pieces of coal,” says Brent Seales—a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky who has held some of the scrolls. “You look at the end and you can see the circular markings of how it’s been rolled, but it looks more like the growth marks of a tree.”

Researchers want to unroll the scrolls, but they’re so fragile, it’s almost impossible to do so without destroying them. “When you try to pull one layer off, it just breaks away from the rest, and so you have 10 million fragments after you’ve peeled it away in that manner,” Seales says. With the magic of a particle accelerator in France, researchers were able to “bombard” the scrolls with x-rays so sensitive that it was possible to distinguish the letters on the ashy paper by thickness.

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“Capturing those letters, you know, that’s pretty amazing in itself,” said Seales, who has worked with the team but was not directly involved in this latest effort, according to NPR. The work is published in the journal Nature Communications. By looking at the writing, researchers believe the writing is that of Philodemus, from the school of Epicureanism.

While the exact words have yet to be determined, the potential to decipher them lies in Seales’ hands. He believes he can write a program that determines which letters belong to which layer of paper.

So, if you think that burning that confession is the best way to get rid of it, don’t be so sure.


Photos by Flickr/Ken and Nyetta and Trey Ratcliff