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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ruivivar

AI Unveils Ancient Secrets: Reading the Burned Scrolls of Vesuvius

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Photo credits: University of Kentucky

In a remarkable breakthrough, researchers have harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to unlock the secrets of ancient scrolls destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

The catastrophic event had seemingly obliterated the scrolls, but nearly 2,000 years later, computer scientists at the University of Kentucky have successfully extracted the first word from one of these charred remnants.

Led by Prof Brent Seales, the team launched the Vesuvius challenge earlier this year, enlisting the help of researchers worldwide to accelerate the reading of the carbonized scrolls. Backed by Silicon Valley investors, the challenge offers cash prizes to those who can extract legible words from these delicate artifacts.

"This is the first recovered text from one of these rolled-up, intact scrolls," said Stephen Parsons, a staff researcher involved in the digital restoration initiative at the university. Since the initial discovery, researchers have continued to uncover more letters from the ancient scroll, fueling excitement about what other secrets may be revealed.

To tackle the challenge, Seales and his team released thousands of 3D X-ray images of the scrolls and papyrus fragments. They also developed an artificial intelligence program trained to identify letters based on subtle changes in the structure of the papyrus caused by the ancient ink.

The unopened scrolls are part of a collection held by the Institut de France in Paris and are believed to have come from the library of a prominent Roman statesman, possibly Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law. Two computer science students, Luke Farritor and Youssef Nader, independently discovered the same ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: "πορφύραc," meaning "purple." Farritor was awarded $40,000 for being the first to find the word, while Nader received $10,000.

The race is now on to read the surrounding text, with researchers hopeful that more of the scroll's content will become legible. Dr Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, revealed that three lines of the scroll, containing up to 10 letters, are now readable, and additional sections show at least four columns of text.

"The discovery of this word is just the beginning of our journey into an unopened ancient book, evoking thoughts of royalty, wealth, and even mockery," said Seales. The context and subject matter of the scroll are still unknown, but the team is optimistic that further exploration will unveil its secrets. As the only intact library from antiquity, the Herculaneum scrolls hold immense historical significance, with the potential to shed light on various aspects of ancient Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and even everyday life.

"For me, reading words from within the Herculaneum scrolls is like stepping onto the moon," Seales added. "We knew the text was there, waiting for us to arrive, but it's only now that we have taken that crucial step into new territory. With our talented team working together, we are ready to embark on an exciting exploration of this ancient knowledge."

The discovery of the first legible word from the burned scrolls of Vesuvius marks a significant milestone in the field of archaeology and demonstrates the power of artificial intelligence in uncovering hidden historical treasures. As researchers continue their efforts, the anticipation grows for what other ancient secrets may be revealed from the ashes of Mount Vesuvius.

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