Using artificial intelligence (AI) tools, researchers have discovered the first decipherable word in unopened scrolls from an ancient Roman town buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The breakthrough could allow for the deciphering of the carbonised papyrus scrolls from the Roman town of Herculaneum, which were damaged by the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79.
Researchers had been unable to read the documents – until today. By relying on 3D X-ray scans of the scrolls produced by a University of Kentucky team, as well as the latest AI tools, researchers have been able to translate one word in the scrolls: “porphyras”, which means “purple”.
The breakthrough was achieved simultaneously by Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Youssef Nader, a data science graduate student at the Free University of Berlin in Germany.
“When I saw the first image, I was shocked,” said Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples in Italy. “I can actually see something from the inside of a scroll.”
The two researchers were taking part in a competition launched by the open-source Vesuvius Challenge, which is awarding a series of prizes for deciphering the scrolls.
To make the discovery, Farritor used subtle, small-scale differences in surface texture to train his neural network and highlight the ink. Meanwhile, Nader used a different AI technique to detect possible letter shapes within the scroll image segments, which has already been used to uncover new, clear images of other segments.
As the first person to find the word, Farritor won $40,000, while Nader came in second and received a prize of $10,000.
In the past, papyrologists could only study the Herculaneum scrolls by physically unrolling them. However, this caused significant damage to the documents. In order to make them more accessible and rely on a wider base of expertise, the University of Kentucky launched a project to create 3D X-ray scans of the papyri.
Although both Farritor and Nader have made significant discoveries, no researcher has yet claimed the largest prize of the Vesuvius Challenge, worth $700,000. The award would be given to the team that is able to read four passages of text from inside two intact scrolls before 31 December 2023.
“I’m confident that Luke, Youssef and the other competitors can solve a whole roll,” said Michael McOsker, a researcher at University College London. “Up until now, all the unrolled papyri that we study are missing their beginnings and are in bad condition, so the prospect of reading a complete text, from beginning to end, is really quite something.”
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