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Secrets of ancient Herculaneum scroll deciphered by AI

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Ancient Herculaneum scroll


Following the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., numerous papyrus scrolls were preserved under layers of ash for centuries. Recently, archaeologists have successfully decoded some of the ancient writings using artificial intelligence technology.

1,000 scrolls


Unearthed from the remains of a villa believed to belong to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, the Herculaneum papyri consist of approximately 1,000 scrolls that were charred during the volcanic eruption, along with numerous other artifacts.

18th century


Discovered by a farmworker during the 18th century, these artifacts are known as the Herculaneum scrolls, named after the location where they were found.



Herculaneum was an ancient Roman town situated south of Pompeii that suffered a similar fate during the eruption.



Efforts to reveal the contents of these scrolls had been unsuccessful due to their carbonization and fragmentation. Despite this, a monk dedicated years to carefully unraveling some of the scrolls, leading to the discovery of philosophical texts scribed in Greek.

Thousands of pieces


“Until now, the only way we have had to read what’s inside the Herculaneum scrolls is to put together the thousands of pieces of the ones that crumbled apart,” Richard Janko, a distinguished professor of classical studies at the University of Michigan, told NBC News on Thursday.

500 years


“It’s like putting together a mosaic, and there’s not many people willing to do it,” he added. “So it may take 500 years to decipher their content. With this technique, hopefully, it should be much easier, and quicker.”

Significant development


A significant development occurred following the initiation of a worldwide competition aimed at expediting the deciphering of ancient texts.

Prize pool


The Vesuvius Challenge presented a prize pool of $1 million to individuals capable of cracking the code and devising a method to interpret the remaining 270 sealed scrolls, many of which are housed in a library in Naples, located approximately 8 miles west of Herculaneum.

Global research


Led by Professor Brent Seales, a team from the University of Kentucky spearheaded this initiative, providing software and thousands of 3D X-ray images of three papyrus fragments and two rolled scrolls. Their intention was to encourage global research entities to participate in tackling this challenge.

Digitally unwrap


Previously, Seales and his team had developed a technique to digitally unwrap an ancient scroll from Israel using X-ray tomography and computer vision. However, even this innovative approach proved insufficient for deciphering the faintly visible ink on the ancient documents from Herculaneum.



“The chemistry of the ink from the ancient world is different than the chemistry from medieval times. It’s largely invisible to the naked eye even when caught by the X-ray,” he said. “However, we know the tomography captures information about the ink.”



“In 2019, we did come up with a solution based on artificial intelligence that allowed us to ‘see’ the ink, but it needed a lot of data, and we had a small team. So we launched the challenge to scale up our processes and accelerate the work,” he added.

18 teams


A total of 18 teams participated in the competition, with the top-performing submissions forwarded to an international panel of papyrologists for evaluation of readability and transcription of the texts.

Judging panel


Ultimately, the judging panel, which included Janko, selected a team comprising three students – Luke Farritor from the U.S., Youssef Nader from Egypt, and Julian Schilliger from Switzerland – to split the $700,000 grand prize.



Leveraging machine-learning algorithms trained on scans, the trio successfully deciphered 2,000 letters from the scroll. By employing a CT scan to generate a 3D representation of the text and segmenting the scroll, they utilized a machine learning model, an application of AI, to identify the inked areas and decode the text.



Following the recent announcement of the winners, one of the competition’s sponsors, Nat Friedman, shared on the social media platform X that the team had unveiled “new text from the ancient world that has never been seen before” from 15 columns located at the conclusion of the initial scroll.



“The author — probably Epicurean philosopher Philodemus — writes here about music, food, and how to enjoy life’s pleasures,” he said. In the closing section, the author throws shade at unnamed ideological adversaries — perhaps the stoics? — who “have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular.”



The method was hailed as groundbreaking by Giancarlo del Mastro, a papyrology professor at the University Campania Luigi Vanvitelli in Naples.



“We were astonished,” said del Mastro, who also helped to judge the Vesuvius Challenge. “We worked literally day and night to interpret them, but what I am even more excited about is that using this method we can now reveal what has been hidden in the papyrus for almost 2,000 years.”

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