The use of artificial intelligence aids in the deciphering of a scroll that was buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.
Experts from ancient times are confident that they are on the cusp of a fresh age of comprehension following the examination of a scorched scroll, using artificial intelligence, that had been buried during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius almost two millennia ago.
Numerous papyrus scrolls stored in the library of a lavish Roman residence in Herculaneum were completely destroyed when the town was ravaged by a powerful eruption of heat, ash, and volcanic debris, similar to the one that decimated nearby Pompeii in 79 AD.
During the 1700s, archeologists discovered over 1,000 scrolls at the mansion, believed to belong to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. However, the scrolls were unreadable due to the black ink being carbonized and they fell apart when researchers attempted to unroll them.
The discovery of how to decipher the ancient text was made possible through the Vesuvius Challenge, a competition started in 2023 by Brent Seales, a computer expert at the University of Kentucky, with support from Silicon Valley investors. Participants were rewarded for successfully extracting text from detailed CT scans of a scroll obtained at Diamond, the United Kingdom’s national synchrotron facility located in Oxfordshire.
Nat Friedman, a technology executive from the United States and a founding supporter of the competition, declared on Monday that a group of three skilled students in the field of computers, Youssef Nader from Germany, Luke Farritor from the US, and Julian Schilliger from Switzerland, were awarded the grand prize of $700,000 (£554,000) for successfully deciphering over 2,000 Greek letters from the scroll.
Experts in papyrology were amazed by the accomplishment of deciphering the text found on the charred scroll. Robert Fowler, a retired professor of Greek from Bristol University and leader of the Herculaneum Society, stated, “This discovery is a significant breakthrough.” He also noted that there are numerous other scrolls waiting to be analyzed.
According to Dr. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, this marks the beginning of a significant change in the study of Herculaneum papyri and Greek philosophy as a whole. This particular library is the only one that has survived from the ancient Roman era.
Seales stated that we are entering a new time period. He was in charge of the project to read the scrolls through virtually unwrapping the CT images and teaching AI algorithms to identify ink. His next goal is to create a mobile CT scanner that can capture images of scrolls without having to physically relocate them from their current collections.
In October, Farritor was awarded the $40,000 prize for correctly identifying the ancient Greek word for “purple” in the scroll. In November, he teamed up with Nader and Schilliger, who created an algorithm to unwrap CT images, and they worked together until the contest deadline on December 31st. In total, they read over 2,000 letters from the scroll, providing scholars with valuable insight into its contents.
Youssef expressed that the journey has been extremely gratifying, fueled by the adrenaline rush that kept them going. The intensity was overwhelming, requiring them to work long hours, often without a clear distinction between days.
“It is likely that the author is Philodemus,” Fowler commented. “The writing style is quite complex, which is typical of him, and the topic is well-suited to his interests.” The scroll explores various sources of pleasure, including music and food – specifically capers – and delves into the question of whether the enjoyment derived from a combination of elements is due to the main or minor components, the plentiful or scarce ones. “When it comes to food, we are not immediately convinced that scarce items are necessarily more enjoyable than abundant ones,” the author explains.
Fowler stated that the question being asked is about the origin of pleasure in a combination of elements. Is it the most prominent element, the rare element, or the combination itself? The author concludes by criticizing their philosophical opponents for not discussing pleasure in any way, both in a general sense and in specific instances.
Seales and his team of researchers dedicated several years to creating algorithms that could digitally unravel the scrolls and identify traces of ink based on their impact on the papyrus fibers. These algorithms were made available to participants in the challenge as a starting point.
Friedman’s contribution was beneficial not just in securing financial supporters. When Seales needed to travel to the UK to scan a scroll, a storm caused all commercial flights to be canceled. Concerned about potentially missing their scheduled time slot at the Diamond light source, Friedman quickly arranged for a private jet for the trip.
In addition to the numerous unread Herculaneum scrolls, there is a possibility that even more are hidden at the villa, providing support for the idea of conducting new excavations. According to Fowler, the same method could also be used to unravel papyrus scrolls found within Egyptian mummies. These scrolls could contain various items such as correspondence, legal documents, and even mundane lists and receipts, offering insight into the daily lives of regular ancient Egyptians. Fowler noted that there are likely boxes of these scrolls stored in the storage rooms of museums.
This year’s challenge is to read 85% of the scroll and establish a basis for reading all of the already excavated scrolls. Scientists aim to fully automate the tracing of the papyrus surface within each scroll and enhance ink detection in the most damaged areas.
Friedman said, “When we introduced this less than a year ago, I didn’t have confidence it would be successful.” He continued, “Many believe that money cannot bring happiness, but they lack creativity. This experience has brought us pure delight. The outcome has been almost too perfect to believe.”