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AI aids in reading charred Roman scrolls

by Marco van der Hoeven

The Herculaneum scrolls, preserved yet charred and damaged by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, have long been considered unreadable. For over two millennia, the wisdom contained in the only surviving library from ancient times remained inaccessible. This status quo changed recently with a significant breakthrough with AI.

Brent Seales, a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, in collaboration with EduceLab, the Library of the Institut de France, and the founders of the Vesuvius Challenge, hosted an event at the University of Kentucky. They announced that for the first time, an entire word had been read from the still-closed Herculaneum scrolls. Seales and his team developed a critical technical approach to recover the writing, revealing Greek characters that mean “purple dye” or “clothes of purple.”

The discovery was made by Vesuvius Challenge contestants Luke Farritor and Youssef Nader. Farritor, a SpaceX intern, utilized prior work and observations to develop a machine learning detector to identify letters. Nader, a biorobotics graduate student in Berlin, independently verified the word with even clearer results. Their findings were authenticated by expert papyrologists from the countries that possess Herculaneum scrolls.

Federica Nicolardi, an assistant professor in papyrology, emphasized the significance of reading entire words from within the scrolls. The preserved texts are unique to the Library of Herculaneum and are unknown from other sources. Nicolardi noted that the term “purple” had not been read in the opened scrolls, suggesting it could refer to various aspects of ancient Roman life.

The journey to this breakthrough began two decades ago when Seales sought to develop an AI program capable of reading the scrolls without opening them. In March, Seales and Silicon Valley investors launched a global competition, the Vesuvius Challenge, to accelerate this effort. The competition aimed to encourage researchers to build upon Seales’ AI technology, offering $1 million in prizes.

Farritor and Nader’s use of Seales’ software led to significant progress. Farritor was overjoyed upon discovering letters on his phone, while Nader continued to refine his models, revealing more lines of text currently under review. Both received the “First Letters Prize” for their achievements.

Seales acknowledged the lengthy and often unpredictable nature of research, celebrating this milestone as a major advancement in understanding and decoding the Herculaneum scrolls. The competition continues, promising further insights into these ancient texts.

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