UPDATED 21:13 EDT / FEBRUARY 05 2024


AI helps scholars decipher ancient scroll buried by Vesuvius eruption

A charred Roman scroll that was buried in the Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79 has partly been decoded by a group of classical scholars thanks to a team of three young computer scientists working with artificial intelligence.

The scroll is part of the Herculaneum Papyri, which includes about 1,800 scrolls that were discovered in the 18th century in Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, Southern Italy. Most of them were badly charred after being buried by the eruption that famously destroyed the city of Pompeii.

The carbonized documents, described as looking like leftover logs in a campfire, are extremely difficult to decipher given that even the slightest touch could turn them to ash. Although some of them have been carefully unfurled, with new technology, it has been possible to unspool them virtually.

In 2023, a group of scientists led by Professor Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, backed by Silicon Valley executive Nat Friedman, used X-ray technology and a machine-learning algorithm to see minute differences in the rolled-up documents and decode some of the meanings.

To move forward with the project, the group created the Vesuvius Challenge, offering cash prizes to students who took up the challenge to develop software that could decipher the scrolls. Today, it was announced that a team of three computer-savvy students from Egypt, Switzerland and the U.S. have picked up the prize of $700,000.

Youssef Nader, currently in Germany, Luke Farritor in the U.S., and Julian Schilliger in Switzerland were able to read more than 2,000 Greek letters from one of the scrolls. Farritor had already won $40,000 after revealing one of the words was the Greek for “purple.” He had spent much of last year developing a machine-learning model that could detect very faint differences in the texture of the charred scrolls, enabling him to identify the presence of ink not visible to the human eye.

After teaming up with the other two students, they detected 15 passages comprising more than 2,000 characters or about 5% of the scrolls’ entire text. It’s believed the text is the work of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher who was writing on food and music and all the nice things that generate pleasure. He wrote in the decoded scroll, “In the case of food, we do not right away believe things that are scarce to be absolutely more pleasant than those which are abundant.”

There are hundreds of scrolls in the villa waiting to be read, and possibly many more than have yet to be excavated, each telling us a story about how these ancient people lived and how they thought. Right now, scientists are on track to open up this world further. They hope 85% of the aforementioned scroll will be decoded by the end of the year, and if the technology improves, the decoding of other scrolls will be faster.

“Some of these texts could completely rewrite the history of key periods of the ancient world,” Robert Fowler, a classicist and the chair of the Herculaneum Society, told Bloomberg.“This is the society from which the modern Western world is descended.”

Photo: Vesuvius Challenge

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