Researchers, led by Professor Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky, have harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to decode a single word from an ancient Herculaneum scroll nearly 2,000 years old.
These scrolls, preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, were thought to be lost to history.
Their remarkable discovery was made possible with support from Silicon Valley investors, who have offered cash rewards for anyone able to extract legible text from these ancient manuscripts.
Stephen Parsons, a researcher on the project, emphasised the significance of their achievement, calling it the “first recovered text from one of these rolled-up, intact scrolls.” Since the project’s inception, they have been steadily uncovering more letters and words from these ancient scrolls.
In what they’ve termed the “Vesuvius challenge,” Professor Seales and his team made thousands of 3D X-ray images of two scrolls publicly available. They also introduced an AI system trained to decipher the characters within the scrolls.
The scrolls are believed to be the work of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a prominent Roman statesman. Two individuals, Luke Farritor in Nebraska and Youssef Nader in Berlin, independently decoded the same ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: “πορφύρας,” which means “purple.”
Dr. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, reported that three lines of the scroll, containing up to 10 letters, are now readable, with the promise of more to come. A recent section has unveiled at least four columns of text.
Professor Seales noted that this word provides a tantalising glimpse into an unopened ancient book, evoking ideas of royalty, wealth, and irony.
The full context remains a mystery, and it is unclear what the scroll discusses, but Professor Seales is optimistic that it will soon be revealed.
While the texts analysed so far are in ancient Greek, there is an expectation that some may be in Latin. The discovery of potentially unexplored sections of the library could yield even greater treasures, including new plays, poems, and lost historical texts.
For Professor Seales, this achievement represents a significant step into uncharted territory, akin to landing on the moon, and he and his team are eager to continue exploring these remarkable artefacts.