When radio-carbon dating was introduced in the 1940s, it turned the world of archeology upside down. No more painstaking counting of tree rings or comparing pottery fragments. Archeologists had a scientific tool that could place a bone, cup or tool on a precise timeline. It revolutionized a profession that had largely survived on lucky finds and rampant speculation.

Now, recent advances in technology are being co-opted by eager archeologists - technology that makes radio-carbon dating seem quaint. One coveted tool is a type of infrared technology called “hyperspectral imaging” that can detect the movement of individual molecules on items that are thousands of years old. Recent applications have proven that the technology is able to detect molecules of ink that are otherwise invisible, allowing us for the first time to reconstruct and read text thought to have been lost.

The new technology came in handy recently for multinational team of researchers,who worked with the Italian National Research Council to decipher the writings on the front and back of an ancient scroll. The segment of papyrus survived the famed 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy. When it was discovered two centuries ago archeologists sought to protect the charred fragments by gluing them to a board. In hindsight, it wasn’t the smartest move in the history of antiquities. But now that we are in the future, their misstep doesn’t really matter. We can read it anyway.

(Some imagery courtesy of ScienceAdvances)

Published on Nov 05, 2019