More than 40 years ago, an ancient scroll dating back to 300 CE was uncovered from the holy ark of an Israeli synagogue. For decades scientists were unable to read it—the artifact had been reduced to a delicate lump of charcoal in a blaze that tore through the town of En-Gedi in 600 CE. Now The Guardian reports that the document has finally been identified thanks to a process called “virtual unwrapping.”

As the researchers detail in their report published in Science Advances, the scroll is a copy of the biblical book of Leviticus transcribed around 1700 years ago. Scholars were able to identify the text without ever unraveling the physical parchment. Instead, they referred to a virtual model of the artifact that was reconstructed using 3D x-ray scans.

With the scans, researchers at the University of Kentucky were able to map the curved areas of the scroll and pinpoint traces of ink. You can see how the computer “unwraps” the virtual pages in the video below.

The fact that the ink showed up in the scans indicates it contained some type of metal like iron or lead. A similar process was used to study ancient scrolls carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Those papers also showed traces of lead-based ink, a discovery that was especially surprising given that most experts pegged the first appearance of lead ink to the 4th or 5th centuries.

Now that the researchers have proven they can “reach and retrieve text from the brink of oblivion,” as they write, they hope to use their method to identify more fragile artifacts. They believe scrolls charred by Mount Vesuvius like the lead-ink document could be a good place to start: While words and letters have been deciphered in the documents, no one’s been able to identify those burned-up texts in their entirety.

[h/t The Guardian]

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