December 4, 2023
AI helps researchers read 2000-year-old texts from scrolls

Researchers have tried to read one word from the nearly 2,000-year-old ancient Herculaneum scroll using artificial intelligence (AI) as an ancient volcanic disaster of Mount Vesuvius burned written texts into ashes alongside a Roman town in 79 AD.

A computer scientist at the University of Kentucky Prof Brent Seales, with his collaborators, announced the remarkable discovery Thursday.

The venture is supported by Silicon Valley investors, who offer cash prizes to those who extract legible words from the scrolls.

“This is the first recovered text from one of these rolled-up, intact scrolls,” said Stephen Parsons, a staff researcher on the digital restoration initiative at the university. Since the start, experts have been able to uncover more letters from the ancient scroll.

In a Vesuvius challenge, Professor Seales with his team released thousands of 3D X-ray images of two scrolls and other fragments. In addition to that, they also made public an AI system they had trained to read letters in the scrolls.

The unopened scrolls are thought to be by a senior Roman statesman, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Luke Farritor in Nebraska and Youssef Nader in Berlin while taking up the challenge, independently read the same ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: “πορφύραc”, meaning “purple”.

Dr Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, said three lines of the scroll, containing up to 10 letters, were now readable with more expected to come. A recent section shows at least four columns of text.

“This word is our first dive into an unopened ancient book, evocative of royalty, wealth, and even mockery,” Professor Seales said.

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“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.”

The already-analysed texts are written in ancient Greek so far, however, it is expected that some may be in Latin.

“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,” said Robert Fowler, emeritus professor of Greek at the University of Bristol.

“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.”

“For me, reading words from within the Herculaneum scrolls is like stepping onto the moon,” Professor Seales added.

“Honestly, I knew that the text was there, waiting for us to arrive, but arrival only happens at the last step. And with such a talented team working together, reading the words is that step into new territory, and we’ve taken it. Now it is time to explore.”


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