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Scientists Discover Metallic Ink On Herculaneum Scrolls Charred By Mount Vesuvius 2,000 Years Ago

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In a startling new discovery, scientists have revealed that the invention of metallic ink could have originated centuries earlier than previously assumed. Up until now, it was presumably believed that metallic ink was introduced into the writing system around the 4th or 5th century A.D.

With these new findings, the introduction of ink containing metal has been dated back to several centuries earlier than previously established — to the Graeco-Roman era (332 BC-395 A.D.).

Charred papyrus scrolls, which were found in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum in the 18th century, have been of intense interest to researchers, scholars and archaeologists alike. The scrolls were buried nearly 2,000 ago by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Physicist Vito Mocella and his colleagues have revealed that upon examining two carbonized papyri fragments, the presence of lead in the ink was discovered. This discovery modifies the earlier held belief that Graeco-Roman inks didn't contain metal.

"We are reasonably certain that lead was intentionally used. It doesn't come from contamination of water from Roman aqueducts or from a bronze container," Mocella, a physicist from the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Naples, told Discovery News.

Synchrotron X-ray based techniques at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France were used for the investigation. In doing so, a high concentration of lead was revealed to be actually present "in sizeable quantities" in the ancient ink used on the Herculaneum scrolls.

"For nearly 2,000 years, we thought we knew everything, or almost everything, about the composition of antique ink used to write on papyrus," said Daniel Delattre, one of the authors of the study.

Delattre, who is from the French national scientific research agency's Institute for Research into the History of Texts, added that the studies done at the radiation facility show why the scientific community should be cautious about assumptions pertaining to the papyri fragments.

The team's findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 21.

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