Modern technology unlocks secrets of a damaged Biblical scroll

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How do you read something that's ancient, burned beyond comprehension and too fragile to even touch?

The Ein Gedi scroll is an artifact dug out of a Jewish synagogue that was destroyed in A.D. 600. It looks like a lump of coal and will probably never be opened, but we now know it contains the beginning of the book of Leviticus — maybe the oldest example in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea scrolls.

SEE MORE: Ancient Sites Are Being Digitally Preserved Thanks To New Technology

We know that because researchers scanned the scroll with a technique called X-ray microtomography — like a medical CT scan, but more powerful.

It looks like a medical CT at first, too. Researchers reconstructed the rolled shape and determined its texture based on how the X-rays reflected from the metal content of the inks. They were able to digitally unroll the scroll and read from it, no touching required.

RELATED: The Dead Sea scrolls

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A volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority rests during a break at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
An Israeli Antique Authority camp is seen near the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
A hat and boots belonging to a volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority are seen inside the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
A volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority holds a securing rope as he walks down to enter the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
A volunteer of the Israeli Antique Authority holds a securing rope as he climbs out of the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
A volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority works inside the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
Volunteers with the Israeli Antique Authority work inside the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
Volunteers with the Israeli Antique Authority work at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
A volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority works at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
A volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority holds a bone found at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
Volunteers with the Israeli Antique Authority work at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
A volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority holds a tooth found at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
Volunteers with the Israeli Antique Authority work at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
A volunteer with the Israeli Antique Authority rests during a break at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun 
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The same X-ray technique worked on papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum, which were buried when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. These were even harder to read, because their carbon-based inks don't reflect X-rays as well as metal inks.

Scientists borrowed the X-ray beam from one of Europe's particle accelerators to get enough power.

X-rays have even been used to digitally unroll scrolls of silver and read their inscriptions.

The tightly packed pages of ancient books can be just as difficult to open up safely. To look through these, scientists are developing terahertz cameras, which capture the light between microwave and infrared frequencies.

They're precise enough to show where one page ends and the next begins — and to read the letters on each.

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