By Nic Fleming and Roger Highfield

Secrets contained in fragile documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls are to be revealed using one of the most powerful light sources in the Universe.

British scientists are using a giant instrument – in essence an extremely powerful torch and microscope combined – to read parchments that are too brittle to unroll or unfold.

The Diamond synchrotron creates X-ray beams 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, allowing researchers to study chemical and material samples in more detail than ever before. It is contained in a flying saucer-shaped building the size of five football pitches near Didcot in Oxfordshire which opened for business in February.

Prof Tim Wess, of the University of Cardiff, is using the synchatron to retrieve information from fragile parchments and to study how they can be prevented from deteriorating. Speaking at the British Association Festival of Science in York today, he said: “This is something we can take forward to try to unravel the secrets inside documents we are too scared to unroll or are beyond the point of conservation.

“The dream is to look at a historical manuscript of great value but sometimes you don’t know the depth of the value because until you start looking at them, because you don’t know what’s there.

“As a biophysicist, developing these techniques and going to archives around Europe and around the world, has been fascinating. When you see these things working, it is a revelatory moment.”

Parchment, made from cow, goat or sheep skin has been used to document the written word for more than 2,000 years. It is still used to record all Acts of Parliament.

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of some 850 documents of enormous historical and religious significance discovered between 1947 and 1956 in caves in the West Bank. They include ancient copies of books of the Old Testament, ancient prophecies and psalms of King David and Joshua. Their discovery greatly enhanced knowledge of Christianity, Judaism and the links between the two.

Prof Wess has been promised access to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls that have not been fully examined because of fears of damaging them. He will first carry out studies on less valuable parchments to ensure using the synchatron does not damage them.

Documents such as the Domesday book, Magna Carta and the US Declaration of Independence deteriorate with age as collagen in the conditioned animal skin turns to gelatine.

Prof Wess is using the synchatron to shine new light on this process, analyse how far the collagen in specific documents has deteriorated and advise on how best they can be preserved.

He and colleagues use it to take a series of high-resolution X-rays from different angles. Detectors identify the location of metallic traces within the ink used to write the documents by measuring how many particles get through the parchment.

Prof Wess said that within three to four years the technique would be refined to the point where it could be used to show up text within pamphlets and even thin books. This would allow researchers to use it to read some Beethoven and Mozart that cannot currently be opened because of fears they could be damaged.

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