Ancient scrolls destroyed by volcano can now be read thanks to AI

6 Feb 2024

Image: Y Nader, L Farritor and J Schilliger / Vesuvius Challenge

A team of three student researchers have won the Vesuvius Challenge after unveiling a body of work previously unknown to the world.

In the 18th century, an ancient library of Greek scrolls were discovered in Italy that were destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD.

Now, nearly 300 years later, a team of student researchers across three continents have stunned the world by deciphering some of the text in one scroll using AI.

Known as the Herculaneum Papyri, these ancient texts held mostly in the National Library of Naples, Italy, have long piqued the curiosity of historians and papyrologists – experts who study ancient texts written on papyrus. But because of the damage done to the delicate scrolls by the volcanic ash, scientist had, until now, failed to read the contents.

Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger trained their machine-learning algorithms on scans of the scrolls, unveiling a body of work previously unknown to historians. Not only is the feat in and of itself an impressive one, but it also paves the way for their methods to be replicated to decipher the rest of the scroll – one of hundreds.

The three students are winners of the Vesuvius Challenge, an initiative of Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Dr Brent Seales launched last March to incentivise some of the world’s brightest minds to use technology to uncover what the scrolls have to say.

More text to scroll through

Previously opened Herculaneum Papyri relate to the Epicurean school of philosophy, and experts agreed the scrolls formed the working library of a follower of the Athenian philosopher Epicurus, who lived from 341 to 270 BC, known as Philodemus.

The new text does not name an author but, according to a perfunctory read by two of the judges, can also be attributed to Philodemus.

“The general subject of the text is pleasure, which, properly understood, is the highest good in Epicurean philosophy,” wrote scholars associated with the Vesuvius Challenge. “In these two snippets from two consecutive columns of the scroll, the author is concerned with whether and how the availability of goods, such as food, can affect the pleasure which they provide.”

In a long post on X congratulating the team, who won a grand prize of $700,000, Friedman said that his “crazy project” had finally succeeded after 2,000 years of obscurity for the scrolls.

“These 15 columns come from the very end of the first scroll we have been able to read and contain new text from the ancient world that has never been seen before,” he wrote, sharing an image produced by Nader, Farritor and Schilliger.

“The author – probably Epicurean philosopher Philodemus – writes here about music, food and how to enjoy life’s pleasures. In the closing section, he throws shade at unnamed ideological adversaries – perhaps the stoics? – who ‘have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular’.”

However, the text that has been revealed so far represents only 5pc of the entire scroll.

For Friedman, the next goal is to be able to read at least 90pc of all four scrolls that have already been scanned using a process known as three-dimensional computed tomography. To that end, the Vesuvius Challenge has instituted a new $100,000 grand prize.

“The scrolls stored in Naples that remain to be read represent more than 16MB of ancient text. But the villa where the scrolls were found was only partially excavated, and scholars tell us that there may be thousands more scrolls underground,” he said.

“Our hope is that the success of the Vesuvius Challenge catalyses the excavation of the villa, that the main library is discovered, and that whatever we find there rewrites history and inspires all of us.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic