In the shadow of the erupting Mount Vesuvius in AD79, the once-thriving Roman town of Herculaneum became enveloped in ash and pumice. Among the casualties was a luxury villa’s library, where hundreds of ancient scrolls met their fiery end. For centuries, these scrolls seemed lost to history, their secrets charred beyond recognition. Yet, you almost wouldn’t believe what researchers have achieved nearly two millennia later.
In an awe-inspiring feat, a group of amateur researchers has managed to decipher the letters on an unopened ancient scroll. Thanks to artificial intelligence, they’ve not only peeked inside the delicate scroll without actually touching it but extracted words from it.
Ancient Texts, Modern Prizes
The breakthrough is the fruit of the Vesuvius Challenge, an initiative launched earlier this year by Silicon Valley magnates Nat Friedman (former Github CEO) and Daniel Gross. With backing from Silicon Valley, the project sets forth a tantalizing quest: offering cash rewards as high as $700,000 to anyone who could retrieve legible words from the carbonized manuscripts.
It all started with Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, who used a particle accelerator as a sort of X-ray machine to scan the layers of two scrolls and three papyrus fragments without physically disturbing them. Previously, when scientists tried to read Herculaneum scrolls, many fell apart.
But Friedman and Gross saw an opportunity: what if new technologies like AI could be used to interpret the layers digitized by Seales?
Attracted by the cash pool and the claim to fame, many tried their luck. But it was Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old student from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and SpaceX intern, who has achieved what many thought impossible. Employing a machine-learning algorithm he developed, Farritor was able to detect Greek letters on the previously unreadable rolled-up papyrus. Where others failed, Farritor focused on the subtle differences in the surface texture of the papyrus to train his neural network, which then accentuated the ink.
One of the deciphered words, πορϕυρας (porphyras), translates to ‘purple’. Although this is just one word, it is likely just the first of many. Already it evokes images of royalty and wealth, although the full context is a mystery at the moment.
“Purple dye was highly sought-after in ancient Rome and was made from the glands of sea snails, so the term could refer to purple color, robes, the rank of people who could afford the dye, or even the mollusks,” said Federica Nicolardi, assistant professor in papyrology at the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II.
“But more important than the individual word is reading anything at all. The advance gives us the possibility to recover the text of the entire scroll.”
Shortly after Farritor’s breakthrough, Youssef Nader, an Egyptian biorobotics graduate student in Berlin, found the same word in the same area of the papyrus using a different method. Farritor was awarded the ‘first letters’ prize, bagging $40,000 for reading over 10 characters, while Nader secured a $10,000 prize.
“These texts were written by human hands at a time when world religions were emergent, the Roman Empire still ruled and many parts of the world were unexplored,” Seales said in a press release. “Much of the writing from this period is lost. But today, the Herculaneum scrolls are unlost.”
For centuries, researchers have yearned to read the hundreds of scrolls preserved under layers of volcanic ash, but were met with disappointment and fragmented pieces. However, this breakthrough has rekindled hope, setting a precedent for the potential revelation of countless other ancient texts.
The stakes are high too. The Herculaneum scrolls are the only known intact library from antiquity. Many of the texts we’re familiar with today have undergone countless reproductions, leading to potential distortions. In contrast, the Herculaneum library offers original, pristine works, untouched by time’s relentless march. The opportunity to tap into this reservoir of knowledge could significantly reshape our understanding of the past.
“The most unique feature of the Library of Herculaneum is that the preserved texts are entirely unknown from other sources. However, I’m confident we will soon be able to read more, understand the topic of the work, identify the scribe if already present in the collection and date the script,” said Nicolardi.
Among the recoverable papyruses, researchers have deciphered around 150 out of 585 unrolled scrolls, including 44 works attributed to the 1st-century BC Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemus, a resident of Herculaneum. It’s believed that Philodemus himself formed the library in the Roman city.
As the boundaries of technology continue to expand, artificial intelligence is carving a niche in the study of ancient texts. With tools like Google’s Ithaca, scholars now have the means to date and identify obscure ancient Greek inscriptions, bridging gaps in our historical narrative. Now, the Vesuvius Challenge serves as a testament to the boundless possibilities when modern science meets ancient wisdom.
This article was updated with new information.