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HomeScienceAncient Herculaneum scroll piece revealed by AI – here's what it says

Ancient Herculaneum scroll piece revealed by AI – here’s what it says

Vesuvius Challenge grand prize winners used technology to decipher damaged papyrus scroll

Vesuvius Challenge

Artificial intelligence has helped decipher an ancient papyrus scroll, which was transformed into a lump of charcoal blackened by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD The first passages of readable text reveal never-before-seen reflections from a Greek philosopher.

The discovery won the grand prize of $700,000 in the Vesuvius Challenge and used a combination of 3D mapping and artificial intelligence techniques to detect ink and decipher letter shapes within segments of scrolls known as Herculaneum papyri, which had been digitally scanned. The combined efforts of members of the winning team (Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger) could pave the way for more discoveries from additional papyrus scrolls once housed in a library in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum.

“I think it’s going to be a huge boon to our knowledge of ancient philosophy, just gigantic: an astonishing amount of new text,” says Michael McOsker of University College London, who was not involved in the discovery.

The winning submission met the Vesuvius Challenge criteria of deciphering more than 85 percent of the characters in four passages consisting of 140 characters each and, as a bonus, included another 11 columns of text for a total of more than 2,000 characters .

These rediscovered Greek letters reveal the thoughts of Philodemus, who is believed to have been the resident philosopher in the library that housed the Herculaneum papyri. The deciphered text focuses on how the scarcity or abundance of food and other goods impacts the pleasure they provide. This fits with Philodemus’ school of Epicurean philosophy, which prioritized pleasure as the main goal of life. His writings from 2,000 years ago even seem to delve into the Stoic school of philosophy that “has nothing to say about pleasure.”

And the Vesuvius Challenge is not over. Its 2024 goals include figuring out how to scale up 3D scanning and digital analysis techniques without making them too expensive. Current techniques cost $100 per square centimeter, meaning it could cost between $1 million and $5 million to unroll virtually an entire scroll, and there are 800 scrolls waiting to be deciphered.

“Realistically, the vast majority of the known and already unrolled library is Epicurean philosophy and that is what we should expect, but there are also important Stoic texts, perhaps some history and some Latin literature. It would be fantastic to have complete texts by authors like Ennius or Livius Andronicus, whose early Roman authors (whose works) did not survive,” says McOsker. “Epicurus Symposiumin which I wrote about the biology of wine consumption, that would be a lot of fun.”

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