The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii under a blanket of volcanic ash, preserving a slice of Roman life. The ash also preserved a collection of papyrus scrolls, now known as the Herculaneum papyri. For years, scholars have struggled to decipher these scrolls due to their delicate and charred condition. But a recent project, combining artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D mapping, has successfully deciphered a portion of these scrolls, shedding light on the thoughts of a Greek philosopher, and marking a significant discovery in the world of ancient studies.
Unveiling Ancient Wisdom with Modern Technology
A team of student researchers, led by a 21-year-old, won the $700,000 grand prize in the Vesuvius Challenge, a competition launched to unlock the secrets of these ancient scrolls using modern technology. The team used AI and 3D mapping techniques to detect ink and decipher letter shapes within digitally scanned segments of the Herculaneum papyri. The deciphered text reveals the thoughts of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher, on pleasure and its relation to scarcity or abundance of goods.
What the Scrolls Reveal
The winning entry reveals hundreds of words across more than 15 columns of text, corresponding to around 5% of an entire scroll. The text discusses sources of pleasure including music, the taste of capers, and the color purple. The passages are thought to originate from the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus and contain his thoughts on ‘music, food, and how to enjoy life’s pleasures.’
Fruitful Combination of AI and Archaeology
The Vesuvius Challenge has cleared the air on doubts about the feasibility of using AI to decipher ancient scrolls. It has demonstrated that AI technology can detect patterns missed by humans, making it a valuable tool in historical and archaeological studies. The challenge aims to scale up the 3D scanning and digital analysis techniques for deciphering more scrolls in the future.
The Road Ahead
Despite this breakthrough, much work remains. The project has so far managed to read about 5% of the 1,800 papyrus scrolls that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2000 years ago. The next challenge is to scan and decipher up to 90% of the scrolls, a task that could reveal a wealth of information about the classical world. This work has been open-sourced, inviting archaeologists and researchers worldwide to contribute to this extraordinary endeavor.
The successful deciphering of the ancient Herculaneum scrolls using AI and 3D mapping techniques marks a significant advancement in the field of historical and archaeological studies. As we continue to harness the power of these technologies, we edge closer to unveiling the secrets held within these ancient texts, offering a unique window into the classical world and its wisdom.