The famous Scroll of Herculaneum, a charred papyrus found during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, has been decoded by artificial intelligence.
The students of the Vesuvius Challenge achieved the feat, using algorithms to scan the artifact that would otherwise have been destroyed if it had been deciphered by human hands.
The winning team read more than 2,000 “never-before-seen” texts about sources of pleasure such as music, the taste of capers and the color purple.
The three students, from Egypt, Switzerland and the United States, will share a grand prize of $700,000 for uncovering hundreds of words in more than 15 columns of text, equivalent to about five percent of an entire scroll.
The winning team read more than 2,000 “never-before-seen” texts about sources of pleasure such as music, the taste of capers and the color purple
The Vesuvius Challenge was launched in March 2023 by Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, and supporters from Silicon Valley.
At that time, Seales released thousands of 3D images of two rolled-up scrolls, as well as an AI program trained to read letters in the marks left by the ink.
Shortly thereafter, Luke Farritor of Nebraska and Youssef Nader of Egypt independently revealed the same word hidden at the heart of the sealed manuscript – “πορφύραc” – meaning purple dye or purple clothing.
And the couple shared a $40,000 prize.
However, Monday's announcement revealed the grand prize winners, which included Nadaer Farritor and Julian Schilliger, a Swiss robotics student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed the settlements of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Torre Annunziata and Stabiae, killing thousands.
Hundreds of texts from the Herculaneum library were also buried and charred by the smoking ash and gases.
Students achieved the feat in a competition in which algorithms were trained using scans of the artifact (pictured).
The charred scrolls resurfaced in 1752 in a villa near the Bay of Naples once thought to have belonged to father-in-law Julius Caesar. However, their contents remained a mystery as scientists considered them too fragile to unfold.
According to Nature, the AI program was trained to read the ink on both the surface and hidden layers of the unopened scrolls.
The general theme of the text is pleasure, which, properly understood, is the highest good of Epicurean philosophy.
The author of the ancient Greek text is believed to be Philodemus, a philosopher who lived in the villa where the scroll was found.
In two excerpts from two consecutive columns of the scroll, the author expressed concern about whether and how the availability of goods, such as food, can affect the pleasure they provide.
The ancient Greek text reads: “As with food, we do not immediately believe that the things that are in short supply are absolutely more pleasant than those that are in abundance.”
“But is it naturally easier for us to give up things that are in abundance? “Such questions are often considered.”
In the final part of the text, our author takes a farewell look at his opponents, who “have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular, when it comes to a question of definition.”
The scroll concluded, “…for we do.” [not] Not questioning some things, but understanding/remembering others. And may it be obvious to us to say true things as they would often have seemed obvious.
“It was an incredibly rewarding journey,” Youssef said. “The adrenaline rush kept us going. It was crazy. It meant working about 20 hours a day. I didn't know when one day ended and the next began.'
“It’s probably Philodemus,” Fowler said of the author.
“The style is very gritty, typical of him, and the subject matter is his thing.”
“I think he's asking the question: 'What is the source of pleasure in a mixture of things?' Is it the dominant element, is it the scarce element, or is it the mixture itself?”
In the final part of the text, the author says goodbye to his opponents, who “have nothing to say about desire, neither in general nor in particular when it comes to a question of definition.”
The scroll ended with: “…for we do.” [not] Refrain from questioning some things but understanding/remembering others. And may it be obvious to us to say true things as they would often have seemed obvious!'
Papyrologist and judge Richard Janko of the University of Michigan said: “Is the author a follower of Epicurus, the philosopher and poet Philodemus, the teacher of Virgil?” It seems very likely.
Pictured is the result of an attempt to unroll one of the many scrolls found at the excavation site
“Does he write about the effect of music on the listener and compare it to other pleasures such as eating and drinking? Quite likely.
“Does this text come from his four-part treatise on music, of which we know Book 4?” Quite possible: the title should soon be readable.
'So many questions! But expected improvements in ink identification will soon answer most of these questions. I can barely wait for it.'
The challenge continues this year with the goal of reading 85% of the scroll and laying the foundation for reading all the scrolls already unearthed