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Almost 2000 years ago, the eruption of Vesuvius “roasted” the ancient Roman Herculaneum, burying a huge library under 20 meters of ash – some scrolls were eventually dug up, but most remained “unreadable” until today, until artificial intelligence “came”
A significant part of the fragments are more reminiscent of pieces of coal than paper. It is believed that the library once belonged to a man named Piso.
Brent Seales' lab at the University of Kentucky has been testing a “virtual deployment” method for deciphering ancient texts for years. The team combines digital scanning with micro-computed tomography—a non-invasive technique often used to image cancer—with segmentation to digitally create pages, complemented by texturing and flattening techniques. Seales developed his own Volume Cartography software for this, which in 2016 already helped the team “view” the En-Gedi scroll, found on the western shore of the Dead Sea, with the first few verses from the book of Leviticus.
However, working on the Herculaneum scrolls was complicated by the fact that the ink is made from coal and water (the ink on the En-Gedi scroll contains a metal that glows brightly on CT scans), although Seales eventually realized that that CT scans can still find tiny differences in texture that indicate areas of papyrus with text, and have trained an artificial neural network to do just that.
In 2019, the researcher transported two intact scrolls to a synchrotron X-ray facility near Oxford and took high-resolution scans, which were subsequently used for the Vesuvius Challenge, launched in March last year. About 1,500 teams had a chance to earn several hundred thousand dollars if they successfully deciphered the text.
Initial draft transcription of the scroll text.
Last fall, with the help of machine learning, it was possible to recognize some letters and even words in one of the ancient scrolls – and now a joint team of three participants has deciphered 15 columns of text:
“The author [probably Philodemus] writes about music, food and how to enjoy the joys of life,” the organizers write. “In the final section, he casts aspersions on unnamed ideological opponents—perhaps the Stoics?—who “have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular.”
The team of Luke Faritor, Yusef Nayder and Jullian Schillinger was awarded a cash prize of $700 thousand.
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However, 15 columns are only 5% of the total content of the scroll. The next Vesuvius Challenge, which has already been announced, offers $100,000 for deciphering 90% of the four scrolls scanned so far. One of the goals of this challenge is to improve automatic text segmentation, since manual implementation requires a lot of time and money (more than $100 per square centimeter).