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Student uses AI to read a torched 2,000-year-old papyrus scroll from Pompeii

[Oct. 14, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Archaeologists have recently recovered an ancient brick that turned out to be about 2900 years old. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In the realm of archeology and ancient literature, few discoveries have evoked as much excitement and curiosity as the Herculaneum scrolls.

Found in the ruins of the ancient Roman city obliterated by Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, these scrolls have been an enigma for centuries, preserving secrets written in ink that time, nature, and tragedy have hidden from us. Now, thanks to the fusion of technology and human endeavor, a glimmer of hope emerges. This is the tale of Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old from the University of Nebraska, and his groundbreaking achievement.


Mount Vesuvius and the Lost City

Before diving into the modern-day marvel that is the Vesuvius Challenge, it's essential to understand the gravity of the situation. Mount Vesuvius's eruption did not only decimate Pompeii. Its reach extended to the thriving city of Herculaneum, now part of Italy, encapsulating its treasures and people in a deadly embrace.


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This eruption was no ordinary catastrophe. The intensity of the heat was so profound that it petrified hundreds of papyri scrolls, converting them into carbonized logs. These remnants of a bygone era, which lay concealed under mud for nearly 1,700 years, were finally brought to light in 1752. Yet, they couldn’t be treated as typical scrolls; unfurling them would mean their utter destruction.

Federica Nicolardi, an academic committee member who reviewed the recent findings, poignantly remarked to Nature, "These are such crazy objects. They're all crumpled and crushed."


The Vesuvius Challenge: Where Past Meets Future

With the tangible impossibility of manually unwrapping these precious relics, technology stepped in as the savior. The Vesuvius Challenge, backed by a whopping $1,000,000 in prizes, called upon the world to decipher these scrolls' content using contemporary techniques.

Luke Farritor used machine learning to make the X-ray images of the scroll clear enough to read. (CREDIT: Vesuvius Challenge, via University of Kentucky)

The University of Kentucky, a key player in this initiative, embarked on an ambitious project. In association with the Digital Restoration Initiative, they engaged in scanning replicas of these scrolls. Using X-rays and advanced machine learning, the initiative provided intriguing X-ray images of these yet-to-be-unfolded scrolls and beckoned citizen scientists to join the fray.


Luke Farritor: The Undergraduate who Made History

Among the many who heeded this call was Luke Farritor. The challenge was immense: to detect a minimum of 10 discernible letters on the scrolls. Within a tiny expanse, less than a square inch, Farritor's state-of-the-art algorithm identified multiple characters, culminating in a full word. This monumental achievement made him the first to discern and submit adequate legible letters, securing him a well-deserved prize of $40,000.

Luke holding the charred remains of the scroll. (CREDIT: Vesuvius Challenge, via University of Kentucky)

At a press conference celebrating this feat, an exhilarated Farritor shared his raw emotion: "I saw these letters and I just completely freaked out. I freaked out, almost fell over, almost cried."


The word that Farritor's algorithm deciphered was the ancient Greek term "πορφυρας," which translates to either "purple dye" or "cloths of purple." Federica Nicolardi, now introduced as a professor of classics at the University of Naples Federico II, observed that while the exact context of this word within the scroll remains elusive, the breakthrough hints at a brighter horizon. "I think this will be a great revolution in the field of papyrology," she expressed.

Training a machine learning model on the ground truth data from the detached fragments. (CREDIT: Stephen Parsons)

Furthermore, the tantalizing prospect of unknown texts has galvanized literary scholars, eagerly anticipating the day when the full scrolls are deciphered. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, shared his optimism: "What I expect is writing that expresses what it means to be human, speaking of love and war and of the things that still matter to us because we are human, just like they were human."


Beyond Herculaneum: The Vast Potential of Technology

While the Herculaneum scrolls remain a significant part of this narrative, the techniques employed have implications beyond these relics. The tantalizing grand prize of $700,000 awaits the team that can decode four passages from two of the scanned scrolls.

The University of Kentucky team scanned the Herculaneum scroll and took X-ray images of the inside. (CREDIT: EduceLab, via University of Kentucky)

But Seales sees a broader application for these methods. He cited the Frankin papers, damaged documents from an Arctic expedition, as potential beneficiaries of this technological marvel. "It's unclear what's written on those papers," he noted. "Virtual unwrapping might be the thing that could reveal it."


The story of the Herculaneum scrolls is a testament to the undying human spirit and the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Through a harmonious blend of ancient relics and cutting-edge technology, we inch closer to unraveling secrets etched in time, ensuring that the voices of the past find their rightful place in the annals of history.

For more science stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by the The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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