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AI Deciphers Ancient Herculaneum
A recent breakthrough in historical preservation and decipherment has been achieved by a computer science student hailing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This groundbreaking accomplishment involves the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in unveiling the contents of a charred Herculaneum scroll, which had been entombed in the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Due to the delicate nature of the ancient scrolls, physical unfurling has been rendered impossible. However, through the utilization of advanced CT scans, researchers have successfully uncovered carbon ink markings that were imperceptible to the naked eye. Employing a sophisticated AI machine-learning model, subtle differentiations in microscopic textures between areas with ink and blank spaces within the scans were detected.
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The AI model ultimately revealed the ancient Greek term “porphyras,” denoting the color “purple,” thereby serving as a compelling proof of concept that deciphering text from these ancient artifacts is indeed feasible. Notably, this revelation holds significant implications as there remain hundreds of other unopened scrolls within the library of this opulent villa, representing one of the few surviving remnants from the Greco-Roman period.
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Recent advances in the realm of ancient document analysis have led to a groundbreaking discovery in the decipherment of rolled-up papyrus texts. Luke Farritor, associated with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has successfully developed a highly innovative machine-learning algorithm. This algorithm has effectively identified ancient Greek letters on multiple lines of the rolled-up papyrus, notably including the word “πορϕυρας” (porphyrias), meaning ‘purple’. Farritor’s approach relied on discerning subtle, minute variations in surface texture to train his neural network and highlight the presence of inked characters.
Expressing her astonishment at the results, Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples, Italy, and a member of the academic committee that reviewed Farritor’s work, described the achievement as a long-awaited dream come true. This breakthrough has enabled researchers to finally gain insight into the inner contents of these ancient scrolls, previously thought to be inaccessible.
The context surrounding these findings traces back to the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in October AD 79, which entombed Herculaneum under 20 meters of volcanic ash, leaving hundreds of scrolls buried. Early attempts to unravel the papyri resulted in a chaotic scattering of fragments, leading scholars to believe that the remaining texts would remain forever unreadable due to their crumpled and crushed state.
The ongoing Vesuvius Challenge offers a series of awards, with a main prize of $700,000 for successfully deciphering four or more passages from a rolled-up scroll. In the latest update, Farritor was announced as the winner of the ‘first letters’ prize of $40,000 for deciphering over 10 characters in a 4-square-centimeter section of the papyrus. Thea Sommerschield, a historian specializing in ancient Greece and Rome at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, expressed her excitement at the prospect of unlocking the knowledge held within these scrolls. The discovery of the scrolls in the eighteenth century unearthed the remains of a luxurious villa believed to have been associated with Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
Further exploration of the library’s contents has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of ancient history and literature. Unlike most classical texts, which have been transmitted through the laborious process of repeated copying by scribes over the centuries, the Herculaneum library holds works directly from the authors themselves.
Although researchers were previously limited to studying opened fragments, recent advancements have shed light on various texts, including Latin works and Greek texts related to the Epicurean school of philosophy. Among these are portions of “On Nature” by Epicurus and writings by the relatively obscure philosopher Philodemus, addressing topics such as vices, music, rhetoric, and death.
With over 600 intact, unopened scrolls, primarily housed in the National Library in Naples, as well as a few in the United Kingdom and France, the potential treasure trove of knowledge remains largely untapped. Additionally, the possibility of uncovering more papyri in the yet-to-be-excavated lower floors of the villa presents an exciting prospect for future archaeological endeavors.
The Vesuvius Challenge, as described by Yannis Assael, a staff research scientist at Google DeepMind in London, is being hailed as a “unique and inspirational” endeavor. This challenge is a part of a broader paradigm shift, highlighting the growing role of artificial intelligence (AI) in facilitating the analysis of ancient texts. Notably, Assael points to the recent trend wherein AI is increasingly aiding scholars in deciphering and understanding historical manuscripts.
Seeing the invisible
In a significant development last year, Assael, along with Sommerschield, introduced a groundbreaking AI tool named Ithaca. This tool was specifically engineered to assist scholars in determining the date and origins of unidentified ancient Greek inscriptions, as well as offering suggestions to fill in any textual gaps.
The impact of Ithaca has been profound, as it currently handles a substantial influx of queries every week. Similar AI-driven initiatives have also emerged, catering to diverse languages ranging from Korean to Akkadian, an ancient language used in Mesopotamia.
This expansion of AI-driven assistance signifies a promising avenue for scholars seeking to delve deeper into the understanding and interpretation of various historical languages and texts.