Ancient Herculaneum scroll piece revealed by AI – here’s what it says


The winners of the Vesuvius Challenge grand prize used technology to decipher a damaged papyrus scroll

Vesuvius Challenge

Artificial intelligence has helped decipher an ancient papyrus scroll, which was transformed into a lump of blackened carbon by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The first passages of readable text reveal never-before-seen musings from a Greek philosopher.

The discovery nabbed the $700,000 grand prize in the Vesuvius Challenge, and used a combination of 3D mapping and AI techniques to detect ink and decipher letter shapes within segments of scrolls known as the Herculaneum papyri, which had been digitally scanned. The combined efforts of the winning team members – Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger – could pave the way for more discoveries from additional papyrus scrolls that were once housed in a library in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum.

“I think it’s going to be a huge boon to our knowledge of ancient philosophy, just gigantic – a staggering amount of new text,” says Michael McOsker at the University College London, who was not involved in the discovery.

The winning submission met the Vesuvius Challenge criteria of deciphering more than 85 per cent of characters in four passages consisting of 140 characters each – and as a bonus, it included another 11 columns of text for a total of more than 2000 characters.

Those rediscovered Greek letters reveal the thoughts of Philodemus, who is thought to have been the philosopher-in-residence at the library that housed the Herculaneum papyri. The deciphered text focuses on how the scarcity or abundance of food and other goods impacts the pleasure they deliver. That fits Philodemus’s Epicurean school of philosophy, which prioritised pleasure as the main goal in life. His 2000-year-old writing even appears to possibly take a dig at the Stoic school of philosophy that has “nothing to say about pleasure”.

And the Vesuvius Challenge isn’t over. Its 2024 goals include figuring out how to scale up the 3D scanning and digital analysis techniques without becoming too expensive. The current techniques cost $100 per square centimetre, meaning that it could cost between $1 million and $5 million to virtually unroll an entire scroll – and there are 800 scrolls waiting to be deciphered.

“Realistically, the vast majority of the known, already unrolled library is Epicurean philosophy and that’s what we should expect, but there are also important Stoic texts, maybe some history and some Latin literature. Complete texts of authors like Ennius or Livius Andronicus, early Roman authors [whose works] did not survive, would be great,” says McOsker. “Epicurus’s Symposium, in which he wrote about the biology of wine consumption, would be a lot of fun.”

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