Papyrus that was charred by a volcanic eruption can be read again thanks to X-ray and AI

Papyrus that was charred by a volcanic eruption can be read again thanks to X-ray and AI

A team of three students has managed to read a two-thousand-year-old scroll of carbonized papyrus with the help of X-rays and artificial intelligence. It concerns a scroll from the Roman town of Herculaneum, which was buried under ash by an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD.

During excavations in 1750, a library with 1,800 papyrus rolls was found here. They were in poor condition and attempts to open them sometimes led to destruction of the material. However, Youssef Nader (Egypt), Luke Farritor (USA) and Julian Schilliger (Switzerland) have now managed to make fifteen columns of Greek text readable without having to unroll the papyrus. They will receive a prize of 700,000 dollars, more than 650,000 euros.

The text that revealed the three is probably by the philosopher Philodemus of Gadara, who lived in Herculaneum in the first century BC. His library is said to have been preserved in the building now called the ‘Villa of the Papyri’. Philodemus was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), who was often concerned with ethics. According to Epicurus, personal happiness was the highest thing man could achieve.

Generated text from the burnt scrolls.
Image Vesuvius Challenge

The fifteen columns that have now been made legible fit perfectly within this philosophical movement. The author muses about goods that can give a person pleasure. Does it matter for the degree of pleasure whether those goods are scarce or abundant? “In the case of food, we do not believe that scarce items are tastier than those that are plentiful,” he concludes.

Other passages discuss music, a subject Philodemus is known to have written about. According to Richard Janko, professor of classical languages ​​at the University of Michigan involved in the project, it is “likely” that the now deciphered unknown passage belongs to this work. “We will soon be able to read the title once more text has been made visible. There are still so many questions: I can’t wait!”

professorRichard Janko There are still so many questions: I can’t wait!

The race to make a scroll readable was called the Vesuvius Challenge 2023, and it did not come about in the usual, academic way. Nat Friedman, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was intrigued by Herculaneum’s scrolls and offered a cash prize to those who managed to unlock their secrets. The software required for this was made available to the general public, so that everyone could participate. Online fundraising ultimately resulted in a large prize pool. Money for discovering the first word (40,000 and 20,000 dollars respectively) was paid out in October 2023, when Farritor and Nader succeeded in making the word ‘purple’ visible in quick succession – an achievement they have now built on.

The Dutchman Jan Paul Posma, who previously had a start-up in Silicon Valley, is project leader of the Vesuvius Challenge. He is delighted. “This is indescribable. We also did not expect that it would work out within a year. With a budget of less than 1.5 million. Which of course is nothing at all for a project like this.”

The second phase of the project is now starting, says Posma. “We have now read about 5 percent of one papyrus scroll, but we have scanned four so far . The goal for 2024 is to read 90 percent of all four scrolls.”