Text from the Herculaneum scroll has been revealed with the help of AI

A group of scholars employed AI technology to decode the text of burned papyrus scrolls that date back to two thousand years ago. The researchers uncovered insights into music and mischievous deeds. A team of student researchers were able to make a significant contribution to the study of archaeology by revealing the contents of Greek writing inside a charred scroll that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. They won a competition called the Vesuvius Challenge and used machine-learning algorithms to analyze scans of the rolled-up papyrus. The previously unknown philosophical work discusses senses and pleasure. This accomplishment may be the key to using AI techniques to decipher the remaining scrolls, which experts believe could revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.

The achievement has ignited the usually slow-moving world of ancient studies. It’s “what I always thought was a pipe dream coming true”, says Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, who was not involved in the contest. The revealed text discusses sources of pleasure including music, the taste of capers and the colour purple. “It’s an historic moment,” says classicist Bob Fowler at the University of Bristol, UK, one of the prize judges. The three students, from Egypt, Switzerland and the United States, who revealed the text share a US$700,000 grand prize.

In the 18th century, a Roman villa in Herculaneum, Italy was excavated, revealing hundreds of preserved papyri. These papyri, known as the Herculaneum scrolls, are the only surviving library from ancient times. Unfortunately, they are too delicate to be opened, as they consist of lumps of carbonized ash.

The winning entry, announced on 5 February, reveals hundreds of words across more than 15 columns of text, corresponding to around 5% of an entire scroll. “The contest has cleared the air on all the people saying will this even work,” says Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, and co-founder of the prize. “Nobody doubts that anymore.”

Seales has been trying to read these concealed texts for nearly 20 years. His team developed software to “virtually unwrap” the surfaces of rolled-up papyri using three-dimensional computed tomography (CT) images. In 2019, he carried two of the scrolls from the Institut de France in Paris to the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford to make high-resolution scans.

Mapping the surfaces was time consuming, however, and the carbon-based ink used to write the scrolls has the same density as papyrus in CT scans, so it was impossible to differentiate in imaging. Seales and his colleagues wondered whether machine-learning models might be trained to ‘unwrap’ the scrolls and distinguish the ink. But making sense of all the data was a gigantic task for his small team.

Seales was approached by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nat Friedman, who had become intrigued by the Herculaneum scrolls after watching a talk by Seales online. Friedman suggested opening the challenge to contestants. He donated $125,000 to launch the effort and raised hundreds of thousands more on Twitter, and Seales released his software along with the high-resolution scans. The team launched the Vesuvius Challenge in March 2023, setting a grand prize for reading 4 passages, of at least 140 characters each, before the end of the year.

Key to the contest’s success was its “blend of competition and cooperation”, says Friedman. Smaller prizes were awarded along the way to incentivize progress, with the winning machine-learning code released at each stage to “level up” the community so contestants could build on each other’s advances.

The colour purple
A key innovation came in the middle of last year, when US entrepreneur and former physicist Casey Handmer noticed a faint texture in the scans, similar to cracked mud — he called it “crackle” — that seemed to form the shapes of Greek letters. Luke Farritor, an undergraduate studying computer science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, used the crackle to train a machine-learning algorithm, revealing the word porphyras, ‘purple’, which won him the prize for unveiling the first letters in late October. An Egyptian PhD student in Berlin, Youssef Nader, who followed with even clearer images of the text, came second.

Over the course of two centuries, many individuals have made attempts to open the scrolls that resulted in their destruction or disintegration. Despite the efforts of papyrologists, the texts remain fragmented and require further deciphering and piecing together. However, certain sections of the scrolls, amounting to approximately 280 complete scrolls, have been left untouched due to their poor condition. These fragments are currently housed in the National Library of Naples, Italy, with some additional pieces located in Paris, London, and Oxford. Participants had less than three months to utilize the released code and improve their readings before the final prize deadline of December 31st.

“We were biting our nails,” says Friedman. But in the final week, the competition received 18 submissions. A technical jury checked entrants’ code, then passed 12 submissions to a committee of papyrologists who transcribed the text and assessed each entry for legibility. Only one fully met the prize criteria: a team formed by Farritor and Nader, along with Julian Schilliger, a Swiss robotics student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

The results are “incredible”, says judge Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II. “We were all completely amazed by the images they were showing.” She and her colleagues are now racing to analyse the text that has been revealed.

The recently discovered text from the Herculaneum scrolls appears to have been part of the personal library of a follower of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived between 341 and 270 BC. The majority of the content in the scrolls is related to the Epicurean school of philosophy. It is likely that the new text is also authored by the same person, Philodemus, although the author is not explicitly named. The text discusses pleasurable experiences, such as tastes and sights, and includes a reference to a person named Xenophantus. This individual may have been a famous flute-player mentioned in the works of ancient authors such as Seneca and Plutarch. According to these sources, Alexander the Great was so moved by Xenophantus’ music that he was compelled to reach for his weapons.

Lapatin says the topics discussed by Philodemus and Epicurus are still relevant. “The basic questions Epicurus was asking are the ones that face us all as humans. How do we live a good life? How do we avoid pain?” But “the real gains are still ahead of us”, he says. “What’s so exciting to me is less what this scroll says, but that the decipherment of this scroll bodes well for the decipherment of the hundreds of scrolls that we had previously given up on.”

There is likely to be more Greek philosophy in the scrolls: “I’d love it if he had some works by Aristotle,” says papyrologist and prize judge Richard Janko at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, some of the opened scrolls, written in Latin, cover a broader subject area, raising the possibility of lost poetry and literature by writers from Homer to Sappho. The scrolls “will yield who knows what kinds of new secrets”, says Fowler. “We’re all very excited.”

The discovery is expected to spark discussions regarding whether additional excavations should be carried out at the Herculaneum villa, where some sections remain unexplored. Janko and Fowler strongly believe that the villa’s primary library has yet to be discovered, which could mean that there are still thousands of scrolls buried underground. Besides, the machine-learning methods developed by Seales and the Vesuvius Challenge participants could be applied to examining other forms of concealed text, such as cartonnage – reused papyri frequently employed to wrap Egyptian mummies.

The next step is to decipher one entire work. Friedman has announced a new set of Vesuvius Challenge prizes for 2024, with the aim of reading 85% of a scroll by the end of the year. But in the meantime, just getting this far “feels like a miracle”, he says. “I can’t believe it worked.”

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