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AI deciphers ancient scroll from Mount Vesuvius eruption

AI deciphers ancient scroll from Mount Vesuvius eruption

On Monday, February 5, 2024, three researchers were awarded a $700,000 prize for employing artificial intelligence to decipher a 2 000-year-old scroll that was charred in the Mount Vesuvius eruption, marking a significant advancement in the field of historical document restoration.

The Herculaneum papyri, consisting of about 800 Greek scrolls carbonized by the 79 CE eruption, have been a tantalizing yet elusive source of knowledge about the ancient world since they were discovered in the 18th century.

The scrolls, stored at the Institut de France in Paris and the National Library of Naples, have remained largely indecipherable due to their fragile state, resembling logs of hardened ash that crumble upon any attempt to unroll them.

In a bid to unlock their secrets without causing further damage, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales launched the Vesuvius Challenge in March 2023, offering $1 million in prizes for breakthroughs in research.

The challenge involved high-resolution CT scans of four scrolls, challenging participants to discern faint Greek lettering through advanced AI pattern recognition techniques.

The winning team for the Vesuvius Challenge comprised three notable contributors who have been significantly involved since the initiative’s inception. Youssef Nader, an Egyptian Ph.D. student in Berlin, made early strides by reading several columns of text in October, earning the second-place First Letters Prize for his clear and legible results. Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old college student and SpaceX intern from Nebraska, made history by deciphering an entire word (“purple”) from a Herculaneum scroll, securing the first-place First Letters Prize shortly before Youssef’s success. Julian Schilliger, a Swiss robotics student at ETH Zürich, was awarded three Segmentation Tooling prizes for his groundbreaking work with Volume Cartographer, facilitating the 3D mapping of the papyrus areas under investigation.

Together, the trio formed a diverse and effective team, combining their unique skills and accomplishments to achieve significant progress in deciphering the ancient texts.

Their use of AI to distinguish ink from papyrus has led to the decryption of about five percent of one scroll, revealing insights into the thoughts of possibly the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus on music, food, and the enjoyment of life.

This work sheds light on the philosophical discourse of the time and hints at the vast potential of other manuscripts possibly buried in the same villa, believed to have been owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The significance of this discovery is immense, as it could vastly expand our understanding of ancient Greek texts, of which only 3 to 5 percent are estimated to have survived to the present day.

The researchers’ efforts also paved the way for future investigations that could unlock up to 85 percent of the scroll’s content, promising further revelations about ancient life’s pleasures and philosophical debates.


1 Vesuvius Challenge 2023 Grand Prize awarded: we can read the first scroll! – Vesuvius Challenge – February 5, 2024

2 AI reads ancient scroll buried by Vesuvius eruption – AFP – February 6, 2024


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