Researchers use artificial intelligence to decipher an ancient manuscript preserved due to the Pompeii revolt and win $700,000.

Researchers use artificial intelligence to decipher an ancient manuscript preserved due to the Pompeii revolt and win $700,000.

Representative image (Schmidsi/Coy_Muse/Bjorn Austmar Borsson/via Canva)

Representative image

(Schmidsi/Coy_Muse/Bjorn Austmar Borsson/via Canva)

For centuries, the Herculaneum Papyri, a collection of 800 Greek manuscripts preserved after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, remained unreadable. More than the horrific state of the handwriting, it was years of wear and tear that had rendered its script indecipherable, keeping its secrets hidden for two millennia.

While most are familiar with the tragedy of Pompeii, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed several nearby Roman cities as well, including the wealthy city of Herculaneum in southern Italy. Excellently preserved, experts have determined that Herculaneum was likely a coastal retreat for the Roman elite. Alongside the wealth of luxurious buildings, the city hosted the Villa Papyrus, a magnificent library of more than 1,800 papyrus manuscripts, which we previously referred to as the Herculaneum Papyri.

While these scrolls were charred and preserved by the heat of the explosion, years of ink blotting and decomposition of the material rendered them unreadable. But now, a glimmer of hope shines through the ashes, thanks to three researchers who used the power of artificial intelligence to unlock part of one of the Herculaneum Scrolls. After winning $700,000 from the Vesuvius Challenge to decipher the ancient text, the team has brought us a step closer to understanding the lavish lives of the Roman elite.

Vesuvius challenge

The Vesuvius Challenge was launched in March 2023 by computer scientist Brent Sales and entrepreneurs Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross. With more than $1 million in prizes, the competition leveraged “computer vision, machine learning, and hard work” to decipher ancient manuscripts. In the same year, participants were able to successfully read text from an unopened scroll using computer-generated models and artificial intelligence, proving that virtual opening and ink recognition techniques are viable. Now, with the aim of opening an entire library, the challenge seeks to expand the range of methods for reading entire scrolls and create an efficient scanning process for 800 manuscripts across Naples.

The winning team, made up of Youssef Nader, Luc Varitor and Julian Schleger, used artificial intelligence to decipher the faded letters and distinguish the ink from the papyrus on the fragile scroll. Their efforts yielded about 5% of the text, revealing meditations on “music, food, and how to enjoy the pleasures of life,” which were probably penned by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus.

Experts have linked the Villa of the Papyrus to the family of Julius Caesar, and believe it likely held thousands of other manuscripts. With only 3-5% of ancient Greek texts remaining, opening the Herculaneum library could be revolutionary. The next phase of the competition aims to use the pioneering results to decipher 85% of the manuscript.

“This is the beginning of a revolution in papyrology in Herculaneum and in Greek philosophy in general,” says expert Federica Nicolardi.

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