Three researchers have been awarded $700,000 for their work using artificial intelligence (AI) to read words on very old scrolls that were damaged in a volcanic eruption long ago. The scrolls are from a place in Italy called Herculaneum. In the year 79 AD, a big volcano called Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the town of Herculaneum. Hot gas, ash and rocks flowed down the mountain and buried the town. 

The scrolls were part of a library in Herculaneum at that time. When the volcano erupted, extremely hot gases and ash flowed over the town. This burnt the scrolls but also preserved them under thick layers of ash and rock. Later, some of these scrolls were discovered and taken out. But they were very fragile as the heat had turned them black and brittle. 

Many scientists tried to carefully unroll these burnt scrolls to read the writings on them. But the scrolls were so damaged that they would break if anyone tried to unroll them. So nobody could read what was written. To help solve this problem, a competition was started in 2021 called the ‘Vesuvius Challenge’. It offered $1 million in total prize money to encourage researchers to find new ways to read the writings on these very old burnt scrolls.

The winning team was made up of three young researchers – Youssef Nader from Germany, Luke Farritor from the USA and Julian Schilliger from Switzerland. They used a technique called artificial intelligence or AI to help read the scrolls without unrolling them. First, high-resolution CT scans were done of the scrolls. CT scans use X-rays to take very detailed pictures of objects from different angles. 

The researchers then fed these CT scan images into AI algorithms they had developed. The AI was trained to recognize the differences between the burnt papyrus material and the ink strokes that formed the ancient Greek letters. It could also identify patterns in the faint letters despite the damage. In this way, the AI was able to pick out some of the written words, even though humans found it very hard to read the blurred, broken letters directly on the burnt scrolls.

So far, the team has decoded about 5% of one scroll using their AI method. They were able to read the Greek word for ‘purple’ which was the first complete word deciphered from the scrolls. For their successful work, the three researchers together received the $700,000 prize money. Scientists are hopeful that with more development, the AI system can read much more of the scrolls’ contents without harming the fragile, burnt originals. 

The scrolls are believed to contain writings by an ancient Greek philosopher named Philodemus from around 1st century BC. They discuss topics like music, food and enjoying life. Learning their contents could provide valuable new information about ancient Greek philosophy and history. The next stage of the ‘Vesuvius Challenge’ aims to unlock 85% of one scroll using the winning team’s research. This marks an exciting breakthrough in reading these unique, preserved-but-damaged scrolls from the shadow of Vesuvius nearly 2000 years ago.