Scientists at Britain's national synchrotron facility have harnessed powerful light beams to virtually unwrap and decipher fragile scrolls dating back 2,000 years in a process they hope will provide new insights into the ancient world.

The two complete scrolls and four fragments — from the so-called Herculaneum library, the only one surviving from antiquity — were buried and carbonized by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79, which also buried the city of Pompeii, and are too fragile to be opened.

The items were examined at the Diamond Light Source facility in Oxfordshire, home to Britain's synchrotron, a particle accelerator in which beams travel around a closed-loop path to produce light many times brighter than the sun.