In the wake of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, which consumed the Roman town of Herculaneum in a hail of ash and pumice, countless ancient scrolls within the library of a luxury villa were rendered to ashes. However, nearly two millennia later, a breakthrough has emerged from the ashes as researchers, leveraging the power of artificial intelligence, have unveiled the first legible word from one of these carbonized texts.
The triumphant announcement was made by Professor Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, who, along with his team, initiated the “Vesuvius Challenge” in March. This challenge is supported by Silicon Valley investors and offers monetary incentives to researchers who succeed in extracting readable words from these ancient scrolls.
The scrolls in question are part of a collection housed by the Institut de France in Paris and were discovered in the library of a villa believed to belong to a prominent Roman statesman, possibly Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, who was Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
To commence the Vesuvius challenge, Seales and his team shared thousands of 3D X-ray images of two rolled-up scrolls and three papyrus fragments. They also introduced an artificial intelligence program they had trained to decipher the letters on the scrolls by recognizing subtle structural changes the ancient ink made on the papyrus.
Two computer science students, Luke Farritor in Nebraska and Youssef Nader in Berlin, took up the challenge and independently unearthed the same ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: “πορφύραc,” which translates to “purple.” Farritor, the first to identify this word, secured a $40,000 prize, while Nader earned $10,000.
With the first word successfully deciphered, the race is on to unravel the surrounding text. Dr. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, has reported that three lines of the scroll, containing up to 10 letters, are now legible, with more expected to be unveiled. A recent section reveals at least four columns of text.
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The significance of this discovery is profound. These scrolls are the sole intact, surviving library from antiquity, attracting immense scholarly interest. Although most texts examined thus far are written in ancient Greek, some may contain Latin texts. Fragments have already divulged letters from Philodemus’s work “On Vices and the Opposite Virtues,” as well as insights into Hellenistic dynastic history.
Beyond these known findings, there is tremendous excitement about what these scrolls may reveal. Historians and scholars hold high hopes that the non-philosophical sections of the library might yield a treasure trove of previously unknown works, such as new plays by Sophocles, poems by Sappho, the “Annals of Ennius,” lost books by Livy, and potentially even documentary papyri containing letters and business documents.
The unveiling of words from the Herculaneum scrolls is akin to a monumental step into uncharted territory. As Professor Seales aptly says, “Reading the words is that step into new territory, and we’ve taken it. Now it is time to explore.”
This groundbreaking use of artificial intelligence not only breathes life into ancient history but also highlights the inexhaustible potential of technology to unlock the secrets of our past.