Archaeology'The adrenaline rush is what kept us going'

In breakthrough, parts of Herculaneum scroll, buried by Vesuvius eruption, deciphered

Three students crack previously unreadable ancient philosophical text with machine learning software developed to read damaged Dead Sea Scrolls

A section of the Herculaneum Scrolls that was successfully read by the Vesuvius Challenge contestants. (Vesuvius Challenge)
A section of the Herculaneum Scrolls that was successfully read by the Vesuvius Challenge contestants. (Vesuvius Challenge)

Three students have successfully deciphered parts of the Herculaneum Scrolls for the first time since their discovery in the 18th century, revealing hundreds of words across 15 columns of one of the 2,000-year-old carbonized scrolls.

Using artificial intelligence and a technique called virtual unwrapping — which previously helped decipher a Dead Sea Scroll from Israel’s Ein Gedi oasis — Egyptian PhD student Youssef Nader, American computer science student Luke Farritor and Swiss robotics student Julian Schilliger won first place in the Vesuvius Challenge 2023. Launched in March, the challenge required contestants to decipher as much as they could of four passages of text amounting to some 560 characters.

“It’s been an incredibly rewarding journey,” Nader told the Daily Mail last week. “The adrenaline rush is what kept us going. It was insane. It meant working 20-something hours a day. I didn’t know when one day ended and the next day started.”

More than 800 scrolls were discovered almost 300 years ago in a villa in Herculaneum that was buried in the 79 CE Mount Vesuvius eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. The home was believed to have been owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.

However, until now, the scrolls were illegible as they had been rendered impossible to open because of the damage caused by lava and high temperatures. Many failed attempts to open the scrolls over the last few centuries severely damaged them.

As part of a project aimed at deciphering the delicate scrolls, four were taken to the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford in England in 2019 where they underwent virtual unwrapping via high-resolution CT scans and analysis by software developed by computer scientist Brent Seales and his team.

The scans did not reveal as clear a differentiation between the ink and the papyrus as the team had hoped, but Seales believed that machine-learning models could be trained to scan the scrolls and recognize differences that indicated ink which may not be noticeable to the human eye.

Ancient scrolls, completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material, are displayed at the Naples’ National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

The task proved extremely difficult and very slow until last year when Seales teamed up with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nat Friedman to launch the Vesuvius Challenge. They released high-resolution scans and Seales’s software, promising a grand prize to whoever could decipher four passages by the end of the year.

A breakthrough in the challenge was made by American physicist Casey Handmer who noticed that the scans revealed faint textures in the shape of Greek letters, which he named “crackles.” American computer science student Farritor then used these crackles to train the AI software to recognize them and locate letters, revealing the first deciphered word in October — porphyras (purple in Classical Greek).

Combining their discoveries and technology, Farritor and fellow prize-winners Nader and Schilliger were able to use the same technique to successfully decipher 2,000 characters making up five percent of the scroll by the end of December, winning $700,000.

Papyrologists analyzing the excerpt deciphered by the three students say the scroll is a philosophical text discussing pleasure and senses. While the scroll’s author has not yet been discovered, some believe it may have been philosopher and poet Philodemus who had lived in Herculaneum. Researchers said there was a possibility that this scroll was part of the philosopher’s four-book text, “On Music,” of which only the last has been discovered.

Following the success of the Vesuvius Challenge, its organizers announced that they were launching another challenge for 2024 requiring contestants to decipher 90% of the four scrolls that have been scanned. Ultimately, the researchers hope to successfully read all the scrolls.

L to R: Youssef Nader, Julian Schilliger, and Luke Farritor. (Vesuvius Challenge)

Archaeologists also believe that further excavations of the house where the scrolls were found may reveal its main library which could contain thousands more texts, including previously undiscovered writings by notable ancient Greek philosophers, poets and playwrights.

Dead Sea Scrolls precedent

This isn’t the first time virtual unwrapping has been instrumental in deciphering historic texts. Seales has worked with the Israel Antiques Authority (IAA) for years, using the technique on parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were not possible to unwrap manually, the IAA told The Times of Israel.

The biggest success story in this collaboration was a burnt scroll from the third century CE found in the 1970s in a synagogue in Ein Gedi. Seales and his team used their virtual unwrapping technique to reveal that the scroll carried the first chapter of Leviticus.

The IAA has continued to work with Seales on other scrolls that “were burnt or decomposed in a way that made them impossible to open,” it said.

Earlier success with the Dead Sea Scrolls was made possible because Seales’s software was programmed to detect changes in density between the ink and the material it was written on.

This, however, did not work for the Herculaneum Scrolls because the carbon-based ink used on them had the same density as the papyrus.

Brent Seales, left, and his team scan Herculaneum Scrolls in the particle accelerator. (Vesuvius Challenge)

“When you look at the material [of the Herculaneum Scrolls], you realize what a miracle it is that we can actually see anything inside,” Seales told US radio broadcaster NPR.

The IAA is enthusiastic about the potential of the Herculaneum Scrolls’ success which comes as the antiquities authority awaits corroboration from a language expert for Seales’s recent decipherment of a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment.

“Hopefully, these developments will enable us to do more and more,” the IAA said.

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