AI Is ‘Unwrapping’ Burnt Scrolls From Herculaneum

Credits: Parker et al., PLOS One 2019

This week, the revelation of the initial deciphered word from a sealed carbonized scroll from Herculaneum was unveiled, a result of the Vesuvius Challenge’s $1,000,000 incentive to interpret the papyri from the ancient city engulfed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The discovered word was “purple.” Luke Farritor first identified it, earning a reward of $40,000, as mentioned in the challenge’s official statement. Subsequently, Youssef Nader also identified the identical word, securing the runner-up prize of $10,000.

When Mount Vesuvius catastrophically erupted in 79 AD, the town of Herculaneum and its more renowned counterpart, Pompeii, were encased in volcanic ash. Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri housed these inked scrolls.

While the eruption’s impact was immediate, it also impeccably preserved both locations until rediscovery in the 18th century. In 1750, a laborer came across these carbonized scrolls. Due to their delicate nature, initial endeavors to unfurl them led to their damage.

While an Italian monk managed to unveil several scrolls over many years, over 600 still remain sealed. Contemporary advancements offer the potential to interpret some writings without jeopardizing the scrolls.

In 2015, using X-ray tomography and computer vision, a University of Kentucky group succeeded in deciphering a Dead Sea scroll without unsealing it, forming a 3D replica of the scroll, inclusive of its inscriptions.

Named the Volume Cartographer, this tool employs micro-CT scanning to generate detailed images of the hidden characters. Standard document scanning technologies detect metallic components in inks to distinguish concealed inscriptions from their background.

However, the ink of Herculaneum is carbon-infused. Hence, scientists created a neural network to spot patterns in the scanned data pointing to the ink’s presence on undistinguished papyrus sections. This recovery method for Herculaneum ink was documented in a 2019 publication.

These recently decoded scrolls reside in the Institut de France in Paris, constituting documents unearthed around 275 years prior. Based on official sources, these scrolls likely belonged to a notable Roman official.

In 2022, to gain insights into the printing mechanisms of historical manuscripts, an SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory team utilized X-rays on fragments of a Gutenberg bible and an early Korean text.

This aimed to unravel the inception and propagation of global printing techniques. In another recent endeavor, researchers employed X-rays on the millennia-old remains from Pompeii, intending to ascertain the exact causes of their demise.

Through X-ray fluorescence, they analyzed the skeletal chemical makeup, deducing that these individuals succumbed to lethal gases rather than intense pyroclastic currents or molten magma.

The Vesuvius Challenge’s main reward stands at $150,000, destined for the first person to decipher four text segments from the scrolls’ inner sections by year-end.

The diligent, non-invasive approach to interpreting these Roman scrolls is yielding results, notably for those adept at decoding the carbonized ink at the heart of these scrolls.