Scientists have used AI to unravel a 2,000-year-old mystery by deciphering an unopened scroll charred by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
When it erupted in 79 AD, the nearby city of Herculaneum was buried in a flood of mud and volcanic ash, taking with it a library of more than 1,800 manuscripts.
While it was feared that the knowledge of the scrolls would be lost forever, two computer scientists have just won $50,000 (£41,168) for revealing the first word from the charred scrolls.
Luke Farritor Nebraska and Youssef Nader of Sedan independently revealed the same word hidden in the heart of the sealed manuscript: ‘πορφύραc’, meaning purple dye or purple-colored clothing.
The discovery was announced by Professor Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, who launched the so-called Vesuvius Challenge in March, offering cash prizes to anyone who could read the manuscripts.
Two computer scientists independently discovered the ancient Greek word for purple in the Herculaneum manuscripts.
The Herculaneum manuscripts were charred by the intense heat that followed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, leaving them perfectly preserved but too fragile to unroll.
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The scrolls themselves are extremely fragile, having remained underground for 1,700 years and cannot be unrolled due to the risk of destroying them forever.
To avoid further damaging the manuscripts, Professor Seales and his team used a particle accelerator to perform an ultra-high resolution scan of the interior of the rolled scrolls.
While the ink is no longer present, Professor Seales believed that machine learning would be able to decipher the subtle marks left by the presence of ink.
In launching the challenge, Professor Seales published thousands of 3D images of two rolled scrolls, as well as an artificial intelligence program that had been trained to read letters in the marks left by the ink.
The two scrolls are among hundreds unearthed in the 1750s, when archaeologists excavated a buried villa in Herculaneum believed to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
Mr Farritor was the first to decipher a legible word within the parchment, winning the $40,000 (£32,934) prize for the first ten letters, while Nader followed soon after with an even clearer image and won $10,000 ( £8,233).
Luke Farritor and Youssef Nader discovered the same word. Farritor’s results (pictured left) were first, while Nader’s results (pictured right) were clearer but came later.
Dr. Seales and his team used a particle accelerator to obtain the highest definition scans possible for the best chance of discovering its contents.
Luke Farritor (pictured) holds a modern parchment burned by researchers to test how writing can be preserved on carbonized papyrus.
What are the Herculaneum scrolls?
Herculaneum was an ancient Roman city located in Campania. With a population of 5,000, it was smaller than Pompeii, although richer.
Located on the western side of Mount Vesuvius, when the volcano erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was initially unaffected.
However, when the eruptive column collapsed in a pyroclastic surge (a wave of hot ash and gases flowing at 160 mph) the city was buried.
One of the buried buildings was a large villa, possibly belonging to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
The villa’s large library contained more than 1,800 papyrus scrolls that had turned to charcoal during the eruption.
In the 1750s, excavations began at the villa and several scrolls were destroyed or discarded in the belief that they were pieces of charcoal.
Hundreds more were destroyed during attempts to unroll them.
In 1756, Abbot Piagio, curator of ancient manuscripts at the Vatican Library, invented a machine that could unroll a single manuscript in four years. The text was quickly copied as it would soon deteriorate once exposed to air.
Modern attempts to preserve the collection have focused on digital methods to read the texts without physically unrolling the papyri.
Researchers have only been able to read fragments of the manuscripts, most of which are related to the Epicurean school of philosophy.
Farritor, a SpaceX intern, said: “I was walking at night and randomly checked my most recent codes on my phone.
“I wasn’t expecting any substantial results, so when half a dozen letters appeared on my screen, I was completely happy.”
Nader, a graduate student in biorobotics, added: “It was exciting to read a text that we didn’t understand, but we knew it was left to us by people thousands of years ago.” “It was like looking into the past through a time machine.”
Although Farritor and Nader were only able to read 10 letters from the vast library, their discovery opens the door to reading more content from the Herculaneum scrolls.
Previous attempts to unroll the scrolls destroyed several of the manuscripts, apart from a handful that were painstakingly opened by a monk over several decades.
If the scrolls could be read without damaging them, the body of texts remaining from antiquity would be doubled.
Federica Nicolardi, assistant professor of papyrology at the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, said: “The most unique feature of the Herculaneum Library is that the preserved texts are completely unknown from other sources.”
Dr. Nicolardi added that it is exciting to discover the word purple because of the importance of this color in the ancient world.
“Purple dye was highly sought after in ancient Rome and was made from the glands of sea snails, so the term could refer to the color purple, to robes, to the rank of people who could afford the dye, or even to mollusks,” says Dr. Nicolardi.
The next challenge for scientists will be to discover more than one word of the text and eventually begin to decipher entire works.
A large portion of the $1 million (£822,735) prize money is still unclaimed, and a grand prize of $700,000 (£576,355) will be awarded to the first person to read four passages of text by the end of 2023.
“What the challenge allowed us to do was recruit over a thousand research teams to work on a problem that would normally be about five people working on,” Professor Seales added.
“The competitive science aspect of this project is simply fascinating.”
If they could be read, the Herculaneum scrolls could double the body of texts surviving from the classical era.