Three young researchers have for the first time used artificial intelligence (AI) to decipher whole passages from a papyrus scroll at Herculaneum charred by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, potentially opening up a whole new era of understanding of the ancient world.
Previously scholars had only been able to decipher single letters or words.
Youssef Nader in Germany, Luke Farritor in the US, and Julian Schilliger in Switzerland took up the Vesuvius Challenge launched in 2023 by University of Kentucky computer scientist Brent Seales to decipher high-resolution CT scans of a scroll and managed to read more than 2,000 Greek letters in passages dedicated to music, food and the pleasures of life.
The endeavour won them the 700,000 dollar grand prize and represents what papyrologists have described as a "complete gamechanger".
"There are hundreds of these scrolls waiting to be read," said Robert Fowler, emeritus professor of Greek at Bristol University and chair of the Herculaneum Society, adding that the deciphered text may have been authored by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus.
"The style is very gnarly, typical of him, and the subject is up his alley," he said.
Now the aim of Seales and the Silicon Valley sponsors is to go from reading a few passages of text to entire scrolls.
"We are announcing a new 100,000 dollar prize for the first team that can read at least 90% of all four scrolls we have scanned," said Nat Friedman on X.
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