Scientists Finally Solve the Mystery of 800-Year-Old Vatican Scroll

A team of researchers in Italy carried out an analysis of a scroll dating back to 1244 A.D. in the hopes that new clues would emerge, and the results were surprising as well as promising for researchers working in the same field.
Mario L. Major
G. Vendittozzi

The preservation of ancient artifacts and historical documents is, and will continue to be, a challenge for scientists and researchers. Moreover, there is a whole host of known and unknown natural forces which contribute to decomposition rates, adding an extra challenge. Finally, it is vital that one understands which materials served as paper in the particular historical era. Considering all these factors, what emerges is a comprehensive analysis which answers the hows and whens.

One example in the last two years was the large-scale efforts to document and analyze a set of scrolls in Italy which had been interacting with charcoal for centuries after being buried underneath ashes from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.!

For a team of researchers in Italy, answering these questions for a parchment paper from the Vatican Secret Archives was the purpose of their research and data collection efforts. The scroll documents the case of Laurentius Loricatus, a young man in Italy, who after killing a man by accident, lived in self-imposed isolation in a cave for 34 years to atone for the sins he had committed.

Strangely, it was not the origins of the scroll which had historians stumped, nor was there even an issue about establishing the language written on the parchment paper dating back to 1244. Instead, it was the purple spots, termed the “culprits” by the authors of the report published in the Scientific Reports journal. The first question to answer was how these mysterious purples splotches formed.

Scientists Finally Solve the Mystery of 800-Year-Old Vatican Scroll

Source: Luciana Migliore/Nature Communications

The scroll is composed of goat skin, the most accessible and widely-used parchment of the era, and salt brines were commonly used for their preservation. Scientists believe that interactions between the collagen existing in the parchment first reacted with the salt, and later with moisture in the air, and that the two together could have created these purple spots, which is essentially bacteria.

The salty Mediterranean air, while wonderful for people and wildlife, is the enemy of historical preservationists. Another example is Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, where moisture and salt were cited in a report released in the last five years as two of the most critical factors affecting the fragile mosaics.

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Taking tiny samples of the stained purple part as well as untainted portions of the paper, the researchers analyzed the DNA collected from the samples. Their discovery was that more than 957 versus 407, respectively, types of bacteria existed. Tor Vergata University Ecology Professor Luciana Migliore, expressed the puzzling discovery of microbes on the paper: “I found marine microbes...Where did they come from, in a goat parchment that had been written eight hundred years ago? This was absolutely surprising.”


Although reactions differ about how conclusive the results of the analysis performed on the samples from the parchment are, for future research on documents presenting similar challenges, the findings are a very important step, with Migliore adding, "The most important thing is the application of new techniques that can help to understand the process of these ancient documents." One wonders what challenges the paper we use today may present for historians in the future.

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