ancient scrolls

University of Kentucky computer scientists recently used AI technology to read an ancient scroll burned when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The scrolls were so fragile that scientists couldn’t even attempt to unroll them, or they would be destroyed.

Instead, as part of a Vesuvius Challenge competition, scientists released thousands of 3D X-ray images of the scrolls and papyrus. According to the BBC, computer scientist Luke Farritor was awarded the $40,000 prize for finding the first letters, eventually revealing the word “purple.” The scrolls were part of a significant discovery in 1752 of about 800 carbonized scrolls buried under ash and pumice.

University of Kentucky computer scientist and Vesuvius Challenge co-founder Brent Seales said, “This word was our first dive into an unopened ancient book, evocative of royalty, wealth, and even mockery. Pliny the Elder explores ‘purple’ in his ‘natural history’ as a production process for Tyrian purple from shellfish. The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus was mocked as He was clothed in purple robes before the crucifixion.”

Seales continued, “What this particular scroll discusses is still unknown, but I believe it will soon be revealed. An old, new story that starts for us with ‘purple’ is an incredible place to be.’ Seales said he believes the entire message of the scroll will eventually be revealed. The scrolls are believed to have been part of the library of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher. One papyrus expert told The New York Times, “Recovering such a library would transform our knowledge of the ancient world in ways we can hardly imagine. The impact could be as great as the rediscovery of manuscripts during the Renaissance.”

The race is now on to read the remaining text. Dr Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, said three scroll lines, containing up to 10 letters, were now readable, with more expected to be revealed. The scrolls are part of a collection from the Institut de France in Paris.

Seales said, “For me, reading words from within the Herculaneum scrolls is like stepping onto the moon. Honestly, I knew the text was there, waiting for us to arrive, but 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’ve taken it. Now it is time to explore.”

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