In the present day, experts of ancient times feel they are teetering on the edge of a new period of comprehension after researchers equipped with artificial intelligence decoded the concealed text of a burned scroll that was entombed when Mount Vesuvius exploded nearly 2,000 years ago. The library of an opulent Roman house in Herculaneum housed hundreds of papyrus scrolls which were destroyed when the town was pulverized by the powerful surge of heat, ash and pumice that annihilated nearby Pompeii in AD79. More than 1,000 complete or partial scrolls were salvaged in the 18th century from the mansion that is believed to be owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. However, the black ink was illegible on the charred papyri and the scrolls disintegrated when researchers tried to unseal them.
The victory in interpreting the historic material stemmed from the $1m Vesuvius Challenge, a competition introduced in 2023 by Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, and high-tech supporters from Silicon Valley. The contest presented awards for extracting text from high-resolution CT scans of a scroll taken at Diamond, the UK’s national synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire. The US tech executive, Nat Friedman, and founding sponsor of the challenge, disclosed that a team of three computer-savvy students, Youssef Nader in Germany, Luke Farritor in the US, and Julian Schilliger in Switzerland, won the $700,000 (£554,000) grand prize after interpreting more than 2,000 Greek letters from the scroll.
The papyrologists who have scrutinized the text recuperated from the charred scroll expressed their astonishment at the achievement. “This marks a complete turning point,” remarked Robert Fowler, emeritus professor of Greek at Bristol University and chair of the Herculaneum Society. “Dr Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, added: “This is the start of a revolution in Herculaneum papyrology and in Greek philosophy in general. It is the only library to come to us from ancient Roman times.”
Seales, who spearheaded efforts to interpret the scrolls digitally by virtually unwrapping the CT images and training AI algorithms to identify the presence of ink, is intending to develop a portable CT scanner to image scrolls without the need to relocate them.
“The scrolls are from Herculaneum,” said Fowler. “The writing is very perplexing, typically indicative of Philodemus, and the subject is tailored to his area of expertise.” The scroll discusses sources of pleasure, with a mention of the pleasure from music and food, specifically capers. It tackles whether pleasure derived from the combination of elements is due to the major or minor constituents, the abundant or scarce.
The challenge will continue this year with the objective to interpret 85% of the scroll and lay the groundwork for reading all of those already unearthed. Scientists need to fully automate the process of tracing the surface of the papyrus inside each scroll and enhance ink detection on the most damaged parts.