1. An aerial view of Diamond in Oxfordshire.

The invisible library

Researchers, led by the renowned ancient artefacts decoder, Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, is using Diamond (right), the UK's national synchrotron science facility in the heart of Oxfordshire, to examine badly carbonised scrolls (below) and fragments of papyri from Herculaneum.

Using this powerful light source and special techniques the team has developed, the researchers are working to virtually unwrap two of the complete scrolls and four fragments from Herculaneum. After decades of effort, Seales thinks the scans from Diamond represent his team's best chance yet to reveal the elusive contents of these damaged 2000-year-old papyri.

Over the past two decades, Professor Seales and his team have been working to digitally restore and read the vast amount of material in the 'invisible library' of irreparably damaged manuscripts. In 2015 they achieved singular success when they 'visualised' the never-before-seen writing trapped inside five complete wraps of
an ancient Hebrew scroll from En Gedi.

2. One of the damaged scrolls from Herculaneum.

This was the first time that a complete text from an object so severely damaged that it could never be opened physically, was digitally retrieved and recreated. It represented a true technical breakthrough.

'Diamond Light Source is an absolutely crucial element in our long-term plan to reveal the writing from damaged materials, as it offers unparalleled brightness and control for the images we can create, plus access to a brain trust of scientists who understand our challenges and are eager to help us succeed. Texts from the ancient world are rare and precious, and they simply cannot be revealed through any other known process,' says Professor Seale.

'Thanks to the opportunity to study the scrolls at Diamond Light Source, which has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, we are poised to take a tremendous step forward in our ability to read and visualize this material.

'The scan session promises to be a key moment in our quest for a reliable pathway to reading the invisible library.'

(Visit http://www2.cs.uky.edu/dri/ and www.diamond.ac.uk)

Lindsay Fulcher