Scientists are close to solving a puzzle more than 1,000 years old: how to read ancient scrolls carbonized by an ancient volcano.
The scrolls are from Herculaneum, a Roman city that was destroyed by the same eruption of the volcano Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii.
Super hot gases from the volcano sucked all the water out of the scrolls, leaving them blackened tubes. It was difficult for historians to unravel them without completely destroying them in the process - only some 200 of the rolls have been unrolled, translated and published.
Scroll Vesuvius volcano
X-rays could help scientists read carbonized ancient scrolls
ITALY - OCTOBER 01: A scholar studies a scroll recovered from first-century A.D. estate. Naples, Italy. (Photo by O. Louis Mazzatenta/National Geographic/Getty Images)
This picture taken on September 7, 2013 during a night tour called 'Herculaneum, Buried Stories', shows human remains of the ancient town of Herculaneum, the city destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius volcano's eruption in 79 b.c.. The direction of the Ercolano Ruins organizes night tours to show the new archaeological discoveries and an actor dressed as an ancient citizen of Herculaneum performs for tourists every Friday and Saturday until November 2. AFP PHOTO / MARIO LAPORTA (Photo credit should read MARIO LAPORTA/AFP/Getty Images)
ITALY - JUNE 24: A view of the archaeological excavations of Herculaneum (Unesco World Heritage List, 1997), Campania, Italy. Roman civilisation, 1st century BC. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
ITALY - MARCH 01: Skeleton of a man found in the mud in Herculaneum, Italy in March, 2003. (Photo by Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
ITALY - MARCH 01: A view of the ruins of Herculaneum in Herculaneum, Italy in March, 2003. (Photo by Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
ITALY - JUNE 01: Victims of an ancient volcanic eruption cling to each other. Herculaneum, Campania Region, Italy. (Photo by O. Louis Mazzatenta/National Geographic/Getty Images)
Herculaneum, House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite. A small courtyard forming an open air dining room. One wall is decorated with a mosaic plaque representing the sea god Neptune and Amphitrite, his wife. Italy. Roman. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
1929: Excavation work on the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
circa 1929: Archaeological work is carried out in the ancient town of Herculaneum, destroyed, along with Pompeii, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Detail of a mosaic from the summer dining room at the house of the Neptune and Amphitrite mosaic, Italy. Roman. Herculaneum. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
The Roman town Herculaneum is close to Pompeii on the bay of Naples. It had some elegant houses of two or three stories with gardens and sea views. Many of the ordinary houses had shops or workshops on the ground floor. (Photo by: Brown Bear/Windmil Books/UIG via Getty Images)
ITALY - APRIL 08: House of the Deer, archaeological site of Herculaneum (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1997), Campania, Italy. Roman civilization. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Herculaneum, Courtyard of the House of Charred Furniture with a shrine to the Lares. Italy. Roman. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Buildings of the Roman town of Herculaneum: with houses of the modern town of Ercolano above, Italy. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
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But now, through X-ray imaging, scientists have been able to not only virtually unravel the scrolls, but also identify the ink on the inside of the scrolls, which means they could be on their way to reading them.
But this imaging technique isn't without its drawbacks.
University of Kentucky Computer Science professor Dr. Brent Seales explained, "The sizes of the images, and the size therefore of the average data set, is huge ... so we're talking about a single scroll being represented by a data set that can be terabytes large, so it's not that easy to be able to handle all the data."
If one scroll translates to terabytes of data - hundreds of thousands gigabytes - deciphering the close to 2,000 scrolls taken from the site at Herculaneum could represent a huge data management challenge.
Herculaneum has long been something of an archeological treasure because so much of the site was perfectly preserved by the volcano's super hot gases. Many of its buildings and artifacts are still largely intact.
The scrolls come from the library of a large villa in Herculaneum. Many of the scrolls unwrapped so far in the seaside library were written by philosopher Philodemus, an instructor to Virgil. Historian believe that there is a lower wing of the villa's library that is still buried. Smithsonian writers say shelves may be full of more 1st-century Latin texts, and "perhaps even early Christian writings that would offer new clues to Biblical times."