Researchers have used artificial intelligence to decipher charred ancient scrolls that were buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, revealing lost texts from Epicurean philosophers that provide insight into everyday life in the Roman Empire.
UNL Students Win $700,000 Grand Prize for Decoding Damaged Scrolls
A team of three students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were awarded the $700,000 grand prize in the Vesuvius Scrolls Deciphering Challenge for using AI to decode passages from ancient philosophical scrolls that were buried and charred in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2000 years ago.
The winning team developed an AI system over three years that analyzed the fragile, warped papyrus scrolls found in remnants of a library in Herculaneum near Pompeii. The scrolls were preserved by the ash that buried the town but were also badly damaged and impossible to unroll without destroying them. The students’ AI system was able to virtually “unroll” scans of the scrolls and enhance the images to pick out individual letters and translate passages of ancient Greek text.
The passages are from works by Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher, preserved in his villa’s library. They reveal writings on topics like morality, poetry, and life lessons – giving historians more insight into what everyday Romans and Greeks were reading and thinking about before Mount Vesuvius erupted.
The grand prize was funded by tech entrepreneur Nat Friedman’s Vesuvius Scrolls Deciphering Challenge, launched in 2021 to encourage computational analysis of the unread scrolls using the latest technology. The students won the top award for most significant discovery and will split the $700,000 prize.
AI Reconstructs Damaged Fragments to Reveal Lost Texts
The AI system is able to digitally reconstruct damaged areas of scroll fragments found at the Herculaneum site, restoring lost philosophical writings to a readable state. This virtual unrolling and reconstruction has allowed researchers to extract sentences and paragraphs and even translate them from the original Greek.
The newly deciphered scroll texts contain excerpts of Epicurean teachings and wisdom, with one section covering the topic “On Frank Criticism”. The writings encourage being open to critiques from others in order to strengthen character and gain wisdom.
Another deciphered excerpt is believed to be from Philodemus’ “On Anger”. It states that anger presents an “opportunity for virtue and pleasure” if dealt with through reason rather than emotion. The text reflects a core tenet of Epicureanism – a Greek philosophy focused on seeking happiness through knowledge, friendship, and living a virtuous life.
These findings give historians more direct source material for studying the spread of Greek philosophy in the Roman Empire. The library in Herculaneum contained over 1800 scrolls with a variety of texts which are still being conserved and analyzed. AI systems will be key to recovering more lost writings as work continues on scanning and virtually unrolling the delicate scrolls.
What’s Next: Continuing Exploration of Damaged Scrolls
While huge strides have been made by AI in decoding these fragile ancient texts, much work is left to be done. Out of hundreds of scrolls found, only small excerpts have been successfully translated so far. Improving the AI to handle damaged portions of the scrolls poses an ongoing challenge.
The charred, warped papyrus is extremely delicate – unrolling and handling the scrolls risks destroying them completely. Currently only 20 scrolls have been carefully unrolled manually, providing limited source material for the AI translation models. Further unrolling is unlikely due to fragility, making non-invasive computational analysis essential.
Advanced scanning techniques will allow clearer imaging of the rolled scrolls to pick up more textual details for the AI system to work with. The machine learning models also need to be customized for the unique challenges posed by the damaged Herculaneum scrolls versus more intact historical texts.
As the AI improves, researchers hope to gain a broader picture of the library’s contents – unlocking more philosophical thought, poetry, scientific ideas, and daily life details of the classical world. The newly deciphered scroll texts already give intriguing cultural insights, but there is still so much left undiscovered nearly 2000 years on from the Vesuvius eruption that both preserved and entombed this rare written legacy.
Discussion and Analysis
The decoding of ancient Herculaneum scrolls marks a major milestone at the intersection of AI and archaeology. Sophisticated algorithms have started extracting lost philosophical knowledge from these extremely damaged, warped papyri after some 2000 years buried under volcanic rubble.
While tangible progress has been achieved, there are broader questions around the role AI should play in studying and handling irreplaceable historical artifacts.
Issues around access and transparency arise with a private challenge awarding hefty monetary prizes. With prestige and funding on the line, there are competitive pressures at play, potentially leading researchers to closely guard their methods or findings. However, open academic collaboration will be key to pushing the technological boundaries needed to fully recover this rare classical library.
There are also ethical concerns if enhanced digital access inadvertently results in reduced careful handling of the physical scrolls in conserved museum collections. Striking the right balance will be necessary to ensure this cultural heritage is preserved unharmed for future generations to appreciate firsthand – not just virtually.
Beyond the Herculaneum scrolls, AI researchers and archaeologists see huge potential to uncover lost details of history and literature from damaged texts and objects found across countless ancient sites. More multidisciplinary breakthrough teams and specialized machine learning techniques will surely emerge to take on the hardest challenges obscuring written artifacts or decorated surfaces degraded over millennia.
As algorithms grow more advanced in digitally restoring and extracting insights, there comes responsible questions around how to integrate AI responsibly without diminishing unique cultural objects down to purely informational assets accessed remotely. For fields like archaeology grounded in tangible study of materials, this means grappling thoughtfully with what is gained and potentially lost as emerging technologies unfold new realities of discovery at scale.
Moving forward, maintaining institutional oversight and review around access and handling based on conservation priorities will help balance revelatory AI capabilities with safeguarding fragile antiquities for posterity. How insights are validated and disseminated from privately-funded initiatives using public cultural heritage also needs to be transparent and accountable early on.
Overall there is tremendous promise as interdisciplinary teams bring AI specially attuned to unlock secrets within damaged and decaying historical finds too fragile for conventional handling. But deliberate coordination around responsible methods and knowledge sharing will be vital to earn broad trust – especially from communities invested in conserving humanity’s rare glimpses into vanished cultures resurfacing after centuries buried and forgotten.
The vesuvius eruption preserved vast written history, but also made accessing it perilous. With cautious optimism, digitally restored texts can give fresh voice to silent scholars from civilizations long past, bringing renewed perspectives out of the ashes.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.