The famous Herculaneum scroll, a charred papyrus found buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, has been deciphered by artificial intelligence.
The feat was achieved by students in the Vesuvius challenge, which used algorithms to scan the artifact that would otherwise have been destroyed if unraveled by human hands.
The winning team read more than 2,000 “never before seen” texts that talked about sources of pleasure, such as music, the taste of capers and the color violet.
The three students, from Egypt, Switzerland and the United States, share a grand prize of $700,000 for discovering hundreds of words in more than 15 columns of text, which corresponds to about five percent of a complete scroll.
The winning team read more than 2,000 “never before seen” texts that talked about sources of pleasure such as music, the taste of capers and the color violet.
The Vesuvius Challenge was launched in March 2023 by Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, and backers from Silicon Valley.
At the time, 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.
Shortly after, Luke Farritor of Nebraska and Youssef Nader of Egypt independently revealed the same word hidden in the heart of the sealed manuscript: ‘πορφύραc’, meaning purple dye or purple-colored clothing.
And the couple shared a prize of $40,000.
However, Monday’s announcement revealed the grand prize winners, which also included Nadaer, Farritor, but also Julian Schilliger, a Swiss robotics student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed the settlements of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Torre Annunziata and Stabiae, killing thousands of people in the process.
Hundreds of texts from the Herculaneum library were also buried and charred by ash and smoldering gases.
The feat was accomplished by students in a contest that trained algorithms on scans of the artifact (pictured).
The charred scrolls resurfaced in 1752 at a villa near the Bay of Naples once believed to belong to father-in-law Julius Caesar, but their contents remain a mystery as scientists considered them too fragile to unfold.
The AI program was trained to read the ink on both the surface and hidden layers of the unopened scrolls, according to Nature.
The general theme of the text is pleasure, which, properly understood, is the supreme good of Epicurean philosophy.
The author of the ancient Greek text is believed to be Philodemus, a philosopher who lived in the villa where the scroll was found.
In two fragments from two consecutive columns of the scroll, the author shared his concern about whether and how the availability of goods, such as food, can affect the pleasure they provide.
The ancient Greek text says: ‘ASo also in the case of food, we do not immediately believe that scarce things are absolutely more pleasant than abundant things.’
‘However, is it easier for us to do without things that are in abundance? “These issues will be considered frequently.”
In the final section of the text, our author takes a parting shot at his adversaries, who “have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular, when it comes to a question of definition.”
The scroll concluded: ‘…because we (not) refrain from questioning some things, but from understanding/remembering others. And that it is evident to us to say true things, as many times they would have seemed evident to us.
“It has been an incredibly rewarding journey,” Youssef said. “The adrenaline is what kept us going. It was crazy. It meant working about twenty hours a day. I didn’t know when one day ended and the next began.’
“It’s probably Philodemus,” Fowler said of the author.
‘The style is very twisted, typical of him, and the theme is to his liking.
“I think you’re asking: What is the source of pleasure in a combination of things? Is it the dominant element, is it the scarce element, or is it the mixture itself?
In the final section of the text, the author fired a parting shot at his adversaries, who “have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular, when it comes to a question of definition.”
The scroll concluded with: ‘…because we (not) refrain from questioning some things, but from understanding/remembering others. And let it be evident to us to say the true things, as many times it would have seemed evident to us!’
Papyrologist and judge Richard Janko of the University of Michigan said: “Is the follower of the author Epicurus, the philosopher and poet Philodemus, the teacher of Virgil?” It seems very likely.
Pictured is the result of an attempt to unroll one of the many scrolls found at the excavation site.
‘Are you writing about the effect of music on the listener and comparing it to other pleasures such as those of food and drink? Most likely.
‘Does this text come from his four-part treatise on music, of which we know Book 4? It is very possible: the title will soon be available for reading.
‘Many questions! But the improvements that can be expected in ink identification will soon answer most of them. I can barely wait.’
The challenge continues this year with the goal of reading 85% of the scroll and laying the foundation for reading all those already excavated.