First section of ancient scroll deciphered by AI

Three researchers have won almost $1.1m (US$700,000) for deciphering a portion of ancient text from a scroll charred by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE.

Herculaneum was an ancient Roman city south of modern-day Naples, which was buried beneath volcanic ash when Vesuvius erupted.

A ruined villa was uncovered in 1750 and found to contain papyrus scrolls blackened by the event.

Replicated parchment.
Samples of the text from the scanned Herculaneum papyrus. Credit: Vesuvius Challenge

The scrolls are incredibly fragile. Attempts to unfurl the 600-odd documents have previously resulted in delicate tears to the material, forcing conservators to lock them from manual unravelling.

But as technology developed, so too has opportunities to ‘read’ their contents. In 2018, scientists at the University of Kentucky in the US X-rayed the scrolls to begin the process of deciphering their text.

Last year the “Vesuvius Challenge” was launched with an opportunity to decipher the X-rays for the cash prize. Among the submissions received, Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schillinger were judged to have produced the best ‘read’ of the texts.

Together, they achieved the minimum requirements for the grand prize, deciphering at least 4 passages, each of 140 characters.

Farritor won a prize in October last year for decoding one word of the scroll – porphyras (purple) – while Nader was second in the competition.

Together with Schillinger, they’ve recovered passages of text that are believed to be from Philodemus, the philosopher-in-residence of the vanquished library. In a statement revealing the winners, the Vesuvius Challenge noted “The general subject of the text is pleasure, which, properly understood, is the highest good in Epicurean philosophy.”

With approximately 5% of one scroll deciphered, the Vesuvius Challenge aims to read 90% of all four scrolls currently scanned. Another prize is on the table for the first team to do so by the end of the year, with details about the competition’s next phase to be released in March.

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