Using artificial intelligence, Professor Brent Seales, a computer scientist at Britain’s University of Kentucky, has managed to begin deciphering charred scrolls from the Roman town of Herculaneum. There is now a real Vesuvius Challenge and two young researchers have won a sum of money by extracting the word ‘purple’ from the papyrus remains.
In the year 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius wiped the Italian towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum off the map. In the latter place, the villa housed a high-ranking Roman statesman, possibly Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. He had the most extensive library at that time. The scrolls are considered one of the most important sources for understanding ancient Greek and Roman literature, philosophy and science.
There’s just one problem: they’re charred. No one dares to burn their fingers on it. They fall apart, so to speak, just by looking at them. What is an obstacle for one person is a challenge for another. Brent Seales has taken up the gauntlet. Together with investors from Silicon Valley, he created the Vesuvius Challenge. Whoever manages to read the blackened scrolls wins money. A total of one million dollars is up for grabs. The first prizes have already been awarded.
“The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near the settlement of Qumran, a site in the West Bank”
Seales has been working for some time to rescue ancient writings from oblivion. He was able to virtually read a scroll found in Israel, part of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls. This is a collection of more than nine hundred documents, including more than two hundred manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh (or the Hebrew Bible). They were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near the settlement of Qumran, a West Bank site on the northwest coast of the Dead Sea, about eight miles south of Jericho.
He made 3D CT scans that allowed him to open the ‘book’. Seales and his team discovered that the scroll contained fragments from the Bible’s book of Leviticus. The way seemed set to start working on the Herculaneum scrolls. If it weren’t for the fact that the Dead Sea Scroll had been written on with ink containing metals that provide bright contrast on the scans. That is not the case with the scrolls from the impressive villa in Herculaneum. The ink is based on carbon and hardly contrasts with the papyrus.
This is where artificial intelligence and machine learning come into play. After all, ink subtly changes the papyrus substance on which it is written. To address this problem, the team developed a neural network that “learns” what patterns in the data look like when ink is present – as opposed to what patterns look like when ink is not present. A machine learning algorithm is trained to detect and recognize the unique ink. (The team’s groundbreaking work in this area was described in an article in Plos One.)
Seares has been working for more than twenty years to be able to read illegible, antique scrolls. For the Herculaneum work, he does this together with EduceLab: A Digital Restoration Initiative, the library of the Institut de France and founders of the Vesuvius Challenge. He was allowed to borrow two Herculaneum scrolls from that library.
He develops a model that can detect the ink on the scrolls. And trains it with CT scans of fragments of already opened scrolls from Herculaneum. With success: the AI model appears to be able to recognize the subtle differences between written and unwritten scorched papyrus.
At the start of the Vesuvius Challenge, Seales and his team released thousands of 3D X-ray images of the two rolled scrolls and three papyrus fragments. They also released the artificial intelligence program they had trained to read letters in the scrolls based on subtle changes the ancient ink made to the structure of the papyrus.
“The word ‘purple is our first dive’ is in an unopened book from ancient times, which evokes memories of royalty, wealth and even mockery”
Countless people worldwide have worked to extract the secrets from the carbonized papyrus. The first two to succeed were two computer science students: Luke Farritor in Nebraska and Youssef Nader in Berlin. They improved the search process and independently found the Ancient Greek word ‘πορφύραc”, which means ‘purple’. Farritor, who found the word first, wins forty thousand dollars and Nader ten thousand dollars. The race is now on to read the surrounding text. Dr. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples, says three lines of the scroll, containing up to ten letters, are now readable and more are expected. A recent section shows at least four columns of text.
At a press launch of the work in the United Kingdom, Seales says the word “purple” is our first delve into an unopened book from antiquity, evoking memories of royalty, wealth and even mockery. What will the context show? Pliny the Elder examines ‘purple’ in his ‘natural history’ as a production process for Tyrian purple from shellfish. The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus was mocked when he was dressed in purple robes for his crucifixion. It is still unknown what this particular scroll is about, but Seales believes it will be revealed soon. “An old, new story that for us starts with ‘purple’ is an incredible place to be.” The strong suspicion is that the non-philosophical part of the library from the villa has yet to be discovered. “And here the imagination runs wild,” says Robert Fowler in The Guardian. ‘New plays by Sophocles, poems by Sappho, the Annals of Ennius, lost books by Livy?’. He is Emeritus Professor of Greek at the University of Bristol. ‘It would also be great to find so-called documentary papyri: letters, business papers; these would be a treasure trove for historians.’
“For me, reading words from the scrolls of Herculaneum is like standing on the moon,” says Seales. “Honestly, I knew the text was there, waiting for our arrival, but the 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 took it. Now it’s time to explore.’