We Have Our First Clue From 2K-Year-Old Vesuvius Scroll

Luke Farritor of University of Nebraska-Lincoln nabs Vesuvius Challenge's 'first letters' prize
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 17, 2023 10:50 AM CDT
Student Identifies First Word in Charred, 2K-Year-Old Scroll
Ancient scrolls, once completely covered in blazing-hot volcanic material, are displayed at the Naples' National Library, Italy, Jan. 20, 2015.   (AP Photo/Salvatore Laporta)

Artificial intelligence and two students half a world apart have deciphered the first word from ancient scrolls that were turned to charcoal and buried for nearly 2,000 years following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. Discovered in the 18th century in a luxury villa in Herculaneum, the carbonized scrolls represent "the only intact library to survive from Greco-Roman antiquity," per Nature. And they're at the center of the $1 million Vesuvius Challenge, a competition promising cash prizes for anyone who can read from the charred remains. Scholars launched the challenge in March, releasing 3D X-ray images of two rolled-up scrolls and three papyrus fragments, along with "untrained artificial intelligence software that could be used to interpret the scans," per Science Alert.

On Thursday, Luke Farritor, a computer science student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Youssef Nader, a biorobotics grad student at the Free University of Berlin, were announced as the winners of the "first letters" prize. They separately identified the ancient Greek word "πορφυρας" or "porphyras," meaning "purple," a color that represented wealth and status in ancient Rome. "This is the first recovered text from one of these rolled-up, intact scrolls," Stephen Parsons, a research adviser for the Vesuvius Challenge, tells the Guardian. Farritor, who was first to identify the word after training a machine learning model on subtle texture changes possibly indicative of ink, wins $40,000, while Nader, who trained the model to identify shapes that might be letters, will take home $10,000 for second place, per Nature.

Researchers have since been able to identify more letters. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, says three lines containing up to 10 letters are now discernible, per the Guardian, boosting hopes that the main $700,000 prize might still be handed out before the Dec. 31 deadline. It is to be awarded to a person able to read at least four passages from the scrolls, considered some of the most important sources of information we have on the ancient world. "What this particular scroll is discussing is still unknown, but I believe it will soon be revealed," University of Kentucky computer scientist Brent Seales, one of those who launched the challenge, tells the Guardian. "An old, new story that starts for us with 'purple' is an incredible place to be." (More Vesuvius stories.)

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