In the year 79 AD, the fiery eruption of Mount Vesuvius wreaked havoc upon Herculaneum, turning a luxurious villa’s library into ashes and burying the Roman town beneath layers of volcanic ash and pumice. In the library, countless ancient scrolls were reduced to charred remnants, seemingly lost forever. However, nearly two millennia later, a groundbreaking discovery has been made – the very first word has been extracted from one of these charred scrolls, thanks to the remarkable capabilities of artificial intelligence.
This remarkable achievement was revealed by Professor Brent Seales, a computer scientist from the University of Kentucky, and his team. Their journey began in March with the launch of the “Vesuvius Challenge,” an initiative designed to expedite the deciphering of these enigmatic texts. With backing from Silicon Valley investors, the challenge offered cash prizes to researchers capable of extracting legible words from the carbonized scrolls.
“This is the first recovered text from one of these rolled-up, intact scrolls,” proudly stated Stephen Parsons, a researcher affiliated with the digital restoration initiative at the University of Kentucky. And this remarkable breakthrough didn’t stop at a single word – more letters from the ancient scroll have since been unveiled.
To launch the Vesuvius Challenge, Seales and his team generously shared thousands of 3D X-ray images of two rolled-up scrolls and three fragments of papyrus. They also released an artificial intelligence program, specially trained to decipher the characters within the scrolls based on subtle ink-induced changes in the papyrus’s structure.
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These scrolls are part of a collection housed at the Institut de France in Paris, and they are believed to have originated from the library of a senior Roman statesman, possibly Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, who was Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
The Vesuvius Challenge attracted the attention of computer science students Luke Farritor in Nebraska and Youssef Nader in Berlin, who independently improved the search process. Both remarkably identified the same ancient Greek word within one of the scrolls: “πορφύραc,” signifying “purple.” Luke Farritor, the first to uncover this word, secured a substantial $40,000 prize, while Nader was awarded $10,000.
The race is now on to decipher the surrounding text. Dr. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, disclosed that they have made considerable progress. Three lines of the scroll, containing up to 10 letters, are now legible, with more expected to be unveiled soon. In a recent revelation, at least four columns of text have been identified.
This single word, “purple,” marks the commencement of a journey into an unopened ancient book, which holds echoes of royalty, wealth, and perhaps even mockery. Its precise context is still a mystery, but it promises to reveal an ancient narrative hitherto unknown. Professor Seales reflects, “An old, new story that starts for us with ‘purple’ is an incredible place to be.”
The Herculaneum scrolls, as the sole surviving intact library from antiquity, are a subject of immense fascination. Most of the texts discovered so far are in ancient Greek, though it’s possible that Latin texts may also be hidden among them. Fragments have already divulged letters from Philodemus’s work on Vices and Opposite Virtues, as well as insights into Hellenistic dynastic history.
“There is a strong suspicion that the non-philosophical part of the library remains to be discovered,” noted Robert Fowler, an emeritus professor of Greek at the University of Bristol. He tantalizingly speculates about the possibility of finding new works by Sophocles, poems by Sappho, the Annals of Ennius, or lost books of Livy, among other treasures. Historians may also be in for a treat if so-called documentary papyri, such as letters and business documents, come to light. These would indeed be a treasure trove of historical insight.
For Professor Seales, this achievement is akin to stepping onto the moon – a journey filled with anticipation and finally realizing that the destination has been reached. With a talented team working tirelessly together, the deciphering of these words is a leap into uncharted territory, one that is now ready to be explored fully.