Artificial Intelligence Deciphers Part of a Herculaneum Papyrus

Artificial Intelligence Deciphers Part of a Herculaneum Papyrus

A prestigious prize of 700,000 dollars has been awarded to a team of three researchers for their groundbreaking work in deciphering a portion of an ancient manuscript scroll. The scroll, which is nearly 2,000 years old, was severely damaged by the historic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The team achieved this remarkable feat by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.

The manuscript scroll, similar to carbonized logs, is stored at the esteemed Institut de France in Paris and the National Library in Naples. Due to its fragile state and the severe damage it sustained, the scroll crumbles and is susceptible to further damage when attempts are made to unroll it.

The competition that resulted in this historic achievement is known as the “Vesuvius Challenge“. The brainchild of Brent Seales, a renowned computer science researcher at the University of Kentucky in the United States, and Nat Friedman, the founder of the Github platform, now a part of Microsoft. The duo had previously scanned four scrolls and set up a substantial reward of one million dollars for anyone who could successfully decipher at least 85% of four 140-character passages.

The triumphant winners of the competition

The victorious trio that took home the “Vesuvius Challenge” prize consists of Youssef Nader, a diligent PhD student studying in Berlin, Luke Farritor, a student and intern at SpaceX hailing from Nebraska in the United States, and Julian Schilliger, a talented Swiss student of robotics. They ingeniously utilized artificial intelligence to differentiate the ink from the papyrus and identify the nature of Greek characters by spotting repetitions. This innovative technique enabled Luke Farritor to decode the first word of a passage, the Greek term for ‘violet’. By combining their expertise, they managed to decipher about 5% of a scroll.

Nat Friedman, co-creator of the competition, speculates that the author of the scroll is likely “the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus”, known for his writings “about food, music, and how to enjoy the pleasures of life”.

Historians theorize that these valuable documents were once the property of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Padre di Calpurnia, who was the father of one of Julius Caesar’s wives, Calpurnia. The “papyri villa”, the site where the scrolls were discovered in the 18th century, remains predominantly buried and is believed to hold several thousand more manuscripts.

“Some of these texts could completely rewrite the history of key periods of the ancient world”

(Robert Fowler, a respected classical scholar, and president of the Herculaneum Society)

Unraveling the meanings of these texts could lead to a monumental breakthrough. According to an inventory compiled by the University of California at Irvine, a mere 3 to 5% of ancient Greek texts have survived into the modern era. The potential knowledge and insights that could be gained from these texts are immeasurable.