A contest has been launched to read the charred remains of 2,000-year-old scrolls found in a luxury villa in Herculaneum, on the western coast of Italy.
Like the famous city Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried under volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. A powerful gust of hot gas emanating from Vesuvius carbonised hundreds of the scrolls in the enormous villa, preserving them.
The villa was discovered in 1750 by an Italian farmworker digging a well. Some of the scrolls found in its library were unfurled by hand in the following decades, causing irreparable damage. The rest of the 600 scrolls remained tantalisingly unreadable.
In 2018, scientists involved in the University of Kentucky’s Digital Restoration Initiative sought to use high-energy X-rays shot through a particle accelerator to peer into the scrolls without damaging them.
Led by the University of Kentucky’s Professor Brent Seales, computer scientists were able to train a machine-learning algorithm to decipher the X-ray images of the papyrus to spot subtle differences on the surface structure.
Read more: Forget the Inca, this was Peru’s first major empire, and thanks to ancient pottery we know how powerful it was
“We’ve shown how to read the ink of Herculaneum. That gives us the opportunity to reveal 50, 70, maybe 80% of the entire collection,” Seales says in a piece in the Guardian. “We’ve built the boat. Now we want everybody to get on and sail it with us.”
Seales’s team is releasing its software along with thousands of 3D X-ray images in a bid to involve many more in the decryption of the ancient texts. A $USD250,000 ($AUD376,000) worth of prizes are up for grabs for global research groups who can improve on the artificial intelligence to read what is the only remaining ancient library to survive to today.
The grand prize of $USD150,000 will be awarded to the first team to decode four passages of text from the furled scrolls before the end of the year.
“We’re having a competition so we can scale up our ability to extract more and more of the text,” Seales explains. “The competitors will be standing on our shoulders with all of our work in hand.”
Infrared images revealed Greek letters and other symbols written in black ink on the scrolls. The X-ray images and Seales’s team’s AI were able to spot new hidden text in the layers between.
Read more: Great Pyramid of Giza scanned using cosmic rays, revealing secret corridor
“A human cannot pick this out with their eye,” Seales tells the Guardian. “The ink fills in the gaps that otherwise create a waffle-like pattern of the papyrus fibres. That pattern gets coated and filled in and I think that subtle change is what’s being learned.”
Some suggest that the scrolls might also include some Latin text including the poems of Sappho or Mark Antony’s lost treatise on drunkenness.
Seales hopes to read early Christian philosophy in the scrolls. “While others would love to see some of the lost work of the ancients, what I’d like to see is evidence of the turmoil that was happening in the first century around the development of Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition as it was evolving.”
The two unopened scrolls belong to the Institut de France in Paris. It is believed that the enormous villa in which they were found belonged to a wealthy Roman statesman. One possibility is that the building was owned by father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.
Excavations at the site are far from complete, leading many to suggest there may be thousands more scrolls preserved in the volcanic ashen remains.
Evrim Yazgin has a Bachelor of Science majoring in mathematical physics and a Master of Science in physics, both from the University of Melbourne.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.