Artificial intelligence has helped decipher an ancient papyrus scroll, which was transformed into a blackened piece of carbon by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The first passages of a readable text reveal previously unpublished reflections of a Greek philosopher.
This discovery won the grand prize of $700,000 at Vesuvius Challenge, and used a combination of 3D mapping and AI techniques to detect ink and decipher letter shapes in scroll segments known as the Herculaneum Papyrus, which had been digitally scanned. The combined efforts of the winning team members – Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger – could pave the way for further discoveries from additional papyrus scrolls that were once housed in a library in the ancient Roman city of 'Herculaneum.
“I think this is going to be a huge boon to our knowledge of ancient philosophy, just gigantic – a staggering amount of new texts,” says Michael McOsker at University College London, which was not involved in the discovery.
The winning submission met the Vesuvius Challenge criteria of deciphering more than 85% of the characters in four passages of 140 characters each – and as a bonus, it included 11 more columns of text for a total of more than 2,000 characters.
These rediscovered Greek letters reveal the thoughts of Philodemus, who is said to have been the philosopher in residence at the library that housed the Herculaneum papyri. The deciphered text focuses on the impact of the scarcity or abundance of food and other goods on the pleasure they provide. This corresponds to Philodemus' school of Epicurean philosophy, which prioritized pleasure as the main goal of life. His 2,000-year-old writings even seem to be inspired by the Stoic school of philosophy which has “nothing to say about pleasure”.
And the Vesuvius Challenge is not over. Its goals for 2024 include figuring out how to develop 3D scanning and digital analysis techniques without becoming too expensive. Current techniques cost $100 per square centimeter, which means that virtually unrolling an entire scroll could cost between $1 million and $5 million – and there are 800 scrolls waiting to be deciphered.
“In reality, the vast majority of the known and already deployed library is Epicurean philosophy and that's what we should expect, but there are also some important Stoic texts, perhaps some history and of Latin literature. Complete texts by authors such as Ennius or Livius Andronicus, early Roman authors [whose works] didn't survive, that would be great,” McOsker says. “Epicurus Symposiumin which he wrote about the biology of wine consumption, would be great fun.