Researchers Use AI to Decode the First Word on an Ancient Scroll Burned by Vesuvius

In the year 79, AD Mount Vesu­vius erupt­ed, bury­ing both Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum. In 1750, an Ital­ian farm­work­er dis­cov­ered an entombed sea­side vil­la in Her­cu­la­neum while dig­ging a well. When exca­vat­ed, the res­i­dence yield­ed hun­dreds of scrolls, all of them turned into what looked and felt like lumps of ash, and prac­ti­cal­ly all of them unrol­lable, let alone read­able. Only in 2015 did humankind — or more specif­i­cal­ly, Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky com­put­er sci­en­tist Brent Seales and his team — devel­op the tech­nol­o­gy that could let us see what texts these ancient scrolls con­tain. Even­tu­al­ly, a par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor and machine learn­ing came into play. This time­line comes from the web site of the Vesu­vius Chal­lenge, “a machine learn­ing and com­put­er vision com­pe­ti­tion to read the Her­cu­la­neum Papyri.”

Fund­ed by tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neurs Nat Fried­man and Daniel Gross, the Vesu­vius Chal­lenge has giv­en out $260,000 of its $1 mil­lion of prizes so far, includ­ing $40,000 to under­grad­u­ate student/engineer Luke Far­ri­tor, who iden­ti­fied ten let­ters in a sec­tion of one scroll, and $10,000 to bioro­bot­ics grad­u­ate stu­dent Youssef Nad­er, who sub­se­quent­ly and inde­pen­dent­ly dis­cov­ered those same let­ters.

The word they form? Por­phyras, ancient Greek for “pur­ple”: a col­or, inci­den­tal­ly, that sig­ni­fied wealth and pow­er in the ancient world, not least because of the enor­mous amount of labor required to extract it from nature. That the Her­cu­la­neum Papyri have start­ed to become read­able also rep­re­sents the cul­mi­na­tion of a sim­i­lar­ly impres­sive effort, albeit one based on tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment rather than the extrac­tion of sea-snail glands.

As Nicholas Wade writes in the New York Times, the cur­rent method “uses com­put­er tomog­ra­phy, the same tech­nique as in CT scans” — exe­cut­ed with the afore­men­tioned par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor — “plus advance­ments in arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence” used “to help dis­tin­guish ink from papyrus.” You can learn more about the Vesu­vius Chal­lenge in the video above. Its cre­ator Gar­rett Ryan, of ancient-his­to­ry Youtube chan­nel Told in Stone, has been pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his expla­na­tion of how 99 per­cent of ancient texts were lost — which means these charred scrolls could hold a great deal of knowl­edge about the ancient world. Do they con­tain, as Ryan fan­ta­sizes, the lost books of Livy, the dia­logues of Aris­to­tle, poems by Sap­pho? We’ll only know when some­one fig­ures out how best to use tech­nol­o­gy to decode them all. Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence may be the key to the future, as we’ve often heard in recent years, but in this par­tic­u­lar case, it offers a promis­ing key to the past.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tors, 3D Mod­el­ing & Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Hid­den Ancient Greek Med­ical Text Read for the First Time in a Thou­sand Years — with a Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tor

Pom­peii Rebuilt: A Tour of the Ancient City Before It Was Entombed by Mount Vesu­vius

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

How 99% of Ancient Lit­er­a­ture Was Lost

A New­ly-Dis­cov­ered Fres­co in Pom­peii Reveals a Pre­cur­sor to Piz­za

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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