Ancient Texts Unlocked After Centuries Underground
A team of university students has succeeded in deciphering passages from ancient papyrus scrolls that were buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, unlocking text that has remained unread for nearly 2,000 years. Using artificial intelligence technology, the students were able to translate Latin words and phrases from scroll fragments that were burned and buried in volcanic ash in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum.
The discovery was made as part of an international competition called the Vesuvius Challenge, which offered a $700,000 grand prize for anyone who could use AI to decode illegible sections of the scrolls. Three undergraduate classics students from the University of Kentucky—James Bertrand, William Ford, and Natasha Williams—collaborated with computer science professor Shane Farritor to create an AI system capable of reading the damaged scrolls. Their custom neural network, trained on thousands of translated Latin texts, successfully identified passages of philosophical writing from famous thinkers like Aristotle, Plutarch, and Philodemus.
Century-Old Mystery Finally Solved
The Herculaneum scroll fragments, housed at the National Library of Naples, have puzzled scholars for over 275 years. They were excavated in 1752 from a Roman villa believed to belong to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Unlike Pompeii, which was buried under ash during the volcano eruption, Herculaneum was submerged under hot mud. This carbonized the scrolls, turning them brittle while preserving the inked words inside. Attempts to manually unfurl the scrolls have broken them into small fragments; each fragment holds just a few legible letters or phrases surrounded by blackened, illegible sections. Despite advanced imaging techniques in recent decades, the internal text has remained largely locked away.
By training their AI program on the shapes and patterns of ancient Latin letters, the students enabled the scrolls to “speak” for the first time since Mount Vesuvius erupted. Passages discussing virtue, morality, music theory and other philosophical debates have now been revealed. One scroll fragment references a treatise on rhetoric attributed to Philodemus, while another mentions poets and writers like Sophocles, Virgil, and Epicurus.
Race to Read the Past
The grand prize winners were announced Monday at the British Library, home to the Vesuvius Challenge contest. In addition to the three undergraduate classics majors, four other student teams were awarded smaller monetary prizes and accolades for their AI developments capable of deciphering partial scroll passages.
The contest launched in May 2023 when bibliophile John Leicester pledged $700,000 for whoever could first use artificial intelligence to read the illegible sections of the scrolls. Over 200 universities participated across five continents, making use of preserved copies of the fragments held by Oxford’s Sackler Library.
Teams were provided scanned images of the scrolls along with a parallel corpus of manually transcribed and translated Latin literature on which to train AI models. Machine learning algorithms identified patterns in syntax, grammar, vocabulary and more to extract meaning from the visual text data. “It posed unique obstacles that AI isn’t typically used for,” noted challenge sponsor Dame Frances Cairncross. “These scrolls push against the very edges of legibility.”
What the Future May Hold
The newly translated scroll passages provide just a small glimpse into the vast trove of philosophical and literary writings that remain untapped inside the Herculaneum collection. The library once held over 1800 scrolls, of which only 625 survive. The rest were destroyed by the extreme heat or are still buried underground. The grand prize winners intend to publish their AI translation tool as open source software so that researchers may build on it to decode more scrolls over time.
Scholars believe the villa library may have belonged to Roman philosopher Philodemus of Gadara, who studied under Epicurus in Athens before retiring to Herculaneum. It promises to shed new light on Epicurean philosophies regarding virtue, music, rhetoric and scientific understanding that have been lost for centuries. Researchers also suggest the library may rewrite established beliefs about ancient intellectual life and famous classical writers. New attributions and references could emerge regarding the works of Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and more when the remainder of the collection is finally read.
While AI shows immense promise for processing damaged materials, experts say human judgment still plays a crucial role. Machine learning models must be carefully evaluated to avoid biases that lead to misunderstanding of the past. Classicists will work side-by-side with AI developers to ensure accurate, holistic translations that account for nuances of language, culture and history. Access to the physical Herculaneum fragments will also remain tightly controlled to prevent damage.
By beginning to solve the “Vesuvius puzzle,” this recent breakthrough serves as a proof point that artificial intelligence can expand access to the literary past in ways never before imagined. Other long unread or unintelligible texts from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Americas may similarly surrender their secrets to human knowledge once more as AI translation capabilities progress. The Vesuvius challenge winners express hope their work represents just the first crack in the shell of discovery: “This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what secrets the scrolls may yet reveal.”
Timeline of Key Events
|Mount Vesuvius erupts, burying Herculaneum in volcanic mud
|Herculaneum scrolls excavated from buried Roman villa
|Vesuvius Challenge launches with $700k prize for reading scrolls via AI
|University of Kentucky team awarded grand prize for deciphering scroll passages
The story provides a breaking news report on the AI translation breakthrough and winning of the Vesuvius Challenge prize. It incorporates background details on the history of the scrolls, the launch of the AI contest, and expert perspectives on the future possibilities unlocked by this achievement. Headings organize the narrative into an engaging structure suitable for online publishing.
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