When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., it blanketed the surrounding area with hot gases and volcanic mud. The eruption famously froze a number of Pompeii residents in place, but it also carbonized hundreds of papyrus scrolls in a luxury villa in the town of Herculaneum. These scrolls, like chunks of charcoal, would break apart if handled and were impossible to read. Until now.
As The Guardian reports, two computer science students independently deciphered a word in one of the scrolls using an artificial intelligence program that has been under development for the past 20 years. In August, 21-year-old Luke Farritor of Nebraska identified the word πορφύραc or “purple.” A few months later, another student confirmed the find.
“This word is our first dive into an unopened ancient book, evocative of royalty, wealth, and even mockery,” Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky who has been developing a method to read the scrolls for the past two decades, told The Guardian.
Seales continued: “What will the context show? Pliny the Elder
explores ‘purple’ in his ‘natural history’ as a production process for Tyrian purple from shellfish. The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus was mocked as he was clothed in purple robes before crucifixion. What this particular scroll is discussing is still unknown, but I believe it will soon be revealed. An old, new story that starts for us with ‘purple’ is an incredible place to be.”
According to The New York Times, Seales developed a method to decipher the scrolls using computer tomography, which is similar to CT scans, and artificial intelligence. To expedite the process, he and others launched the “Vesuvius Challenge” in March by sharing thousands of 3D X-ray images of two scrolls and three papyrus fragments — as well as an artificial intelligence program they’d developed — and offered lucrative cash prizes.
“Will you be the one unlocking the knowledge in hundreds of scrolls — doubling the amount of texts from antiquity — and potentially thousands more that are yet to be excavated, becoming the last hero of the Roman Empire and winning $700,000 while you’re at it?” the Vesuvius Challenge organizers ask on their site.
Indeed, Seales and others are hopeful that these two techniques could be used to further decipher hundreds of scrolls. Some 800 scrolls were discovered in a luxury villa in Herculaneum in 1752, but have not been read because their delicacy means they easily fall apart.
And as scholars noted, reading the scrolls could have a profound implication on our understanding of the ancient world.
“Recovering such a library would transform our knowledge of the ancient world in ways we can hardly imagine,” Robert Fowler, a classicist and papyrus expert at the University of Bristol, raved to The New York Times.
Fowler added: “The impact could be as great as the rediscovery of manuscripts during the Renaissance.”
Scholars believe that the scrolls discovered in Herculaneum were kept in a villa owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. They seem to have been maintained in a private library overseen by Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher. Because many ancient texts have been lost, scholars are hopeful that this library of previously unreadable scrolls could offer dazzling new insights into antiquity.
As The New York Times reports, just seven of Sophocles 120+ plays have survived. Just 35 of Livy’s 142-volume history of Rome have been recovered. What if these lost works were frozen in time in Piso’s library?
“The strong suspicion is that the non-philosophical part of the library remains to be discovered, and here fantasy runs riot: new plays of Sophocles, poems of Sappho, the Annals of Ennius, lost books of Livy and so on,” Robert Fowler told The Guardian. “It would be great too to find so-called documentary papyri: letters, business papers, and so on; these would be a treasure-trove for historians.”
The Vesuvius Challenge is still open. As The New York Times reports, organizers are offering a $700,000 prize for anyone who can decipher four passages of at least 140 characters.