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AI Deciphers Burnt Scroll, Reveals Ancient Greek Philosopher’s Musings on Happiness

AI deciphers burnt scroll
Herculaneum, buried by the volcanic eruption in AD 79, yielded the Herculaneum scrolls unearthed in the 18th century. These scrolls, charred by fire, have had their contents identified using AI technology, revealing the philosophical musings of Greek philosophers on happiness.

This breakthrough has ignited the typically slow-moving world of ancient studies. In addition to hundreds of Herculaneum scrolls awaiting identification, AI can also be applied to study the materials wrapping mummies, revealing insights into the lives of ordinary ancient Egyptians.

The end of the first scroll that can be read
These fifteen lines of text originate from the end of the first scroll that can be read. Approximately 95% of the scroll remains to be deciphered

Artificial intelligence technology may have a revolutionary impact on our understanding of the ancient world.

About 2000 years ago, a burnt papyrus scroll buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was recently deciphered by a group of student researchers using AI, uncovering a previously unknown philosophical work discussing happiness.

On February 5th, local time, the “Vesuvius Challenge” event announced that three students who deciphered the papyrus scroll text came from Egypt, Switzerland, and the United States, sharing a $700,000 prize. They identified over 2000 Greek letters on the scroll, equivalent to 5% of its content. This achievement has ignited the typically slow-moving world of ancient studies, with scholars believing that it will double the discovery of ancient Greek and Roman poetry, drama, and philosophical works.

“Some of these texts may completely rewrite the history of key periods in ancient times,” said classical scholar Robert Fowler, chairman of the Herculaneum Society, to the media. “This is the origin society of the modern Western world.”

AI Identifies Carbonized Ancient Scrolls

The Herculaneum scrolls, found in the library of a luxurious Roman villa in Herculaneum, Italy, were unearthed in the 18th century. Herculaneum, known as the “frozen city of time,” along with the ancient city of Pompeii, was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The villa is believed to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law and a senator. The library is the only one left from ancient Rome, and these charred scrolls are precious remnants preserved from ancient Roman times.

About 1800 scrolls were first discovered in the Herculaneum archaeological excavations in 1752. In the centuries after their discovery, attempts to open these blackened scrolls resulted in some being destroyed and turned into fragments. Most of these ancient scrolls are preserved in the National Library of Naples, with a few in Paris, London, and Oxford.

Fragmented scrolls
The consequence of directly unrolling the scrolls is that they become fragmented

Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky in the United States and co-founder of the “Vesuvius Challenge,” has been trying to interpret these texts for nearly 20 years, hoping to open this “invisible library.” His team developed software to digitally open the scrolls, using three-dimensional computer tomography (CT) imaging to “virtually unroll” the rolled papyrus. However, drawing surface images of the scrolls was time-consuming, and in CT scans, the carbon-based ink used for writing on the scrolls had the same density as the papyrus, making it impossible to distinguish in the imaging.

Seales’ team wanted to know if machine learning models could be trained to “open” the scrolls and distinguish the ink, but this was a daunting task for his small team. Fortunately, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nat Friedman found Seales and suggested opening the challenge, donating a sum of money.

In March 2023, the “Vesuvius Challenge” was officially launched. The event set a grand prize, requiring teams to decipher over 85% of the characters in each of the four text segments, each with 140 characters, by the end of 2023. In fact, the challenge provided over 2000 characters for identification. Seales’ team released the scan results and code to the public.

A crucial innovation emerged in mid-last year when American entrepreneur and former physicist Casey Handmer noticed a faint texture in the scans, which formed the shapes of Greek letters.

Twenty-one-year-old undergraduate Luke Farritor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln used these textures to train a machine learning algorithm and discovered the ancient Greek word “porphyras,” meaning “purple,” winning the grand prize. Youssef Nader, an Egyptian doctoral student in Berlin, followed closely with clearer images, taking second place. Also part of the team with Farritor and Nader was Julian Schilliger, a robotics student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. After these images were revealed, scholars of papyrus manuscripts rushed to analyze the texts.

Identified Texts Explore the Source of Happiness

The luxurious library in the Herculaneum villa was well-stocked, with some known scrolls containing the works of Philodemus, a philosopher of the Epicurean school.

A scroll with Greek texts on both the front and back sides had its hidden content identified using imaging technology, with research published in the journal Science Advances in 2019. The content on this scroll was a draft of “Academy History,” authored by none other than Philodemus.

Most of the previously opened Herculaneum scrolls were related to the Epicurean philosophical school. Although the identified text this time does not mention the author’s name, Fowler believes the author is still Philodemus, noting, “The style is very rough, which is his typical feature, and the theme is what he is good at.”

The scroll recognized by the winner
The scroll recognized by the winner

The identified text segments reveal the philosopher’s thoughts on happiness—how the scarcity or abundance of food and other items affects the happiness they bring.

The text discusses the sources of happiness, involving music and food, and also discusses whether happiness experienced from various combinations of elements is due to the main or secondary elements, richness, or scarcity. “As for food, we don’t immediately believe that scarce things are necessarily more pleasant than abundant things,” the author wrote.

“I think he is asking a question: what is the source of happiness among various things? Is it the dominant element, the scarce element, or the mixture of the two?” interpreted Fowler.

There may be more Greek philosophy hidden in the remaining scrolls. According to Nature, some previously opened Latin scrolls cover broader topics, and it is possible to find lost poems and literary works by Greek poets Homer and Sappho.

“This is the beginning of the Herculaneum papyrus and Greek philosophical revolution,” said Federica Nicolardi, a papyrus manuscript scholar at the University of Naples Federico II.

The next step in the challenge is to decipher the entire work.

Friedman has announced the “Vesuvius Challenge” for 2024, with a $100,000 prize for the first team to identify at least 90% of the scanned content from four scrolls. Researchers need to fully automate tracking of each papyrus surface and improve ink detection in the most severely damaged parts.

In addition to hundreds of Herculaneum scrolls awaiting identification, this research outcome also suggests that machine learning technology can be used to study other types of hidden texts, such as papyri wrapped around mummies, which may include letters, deeds, laundry lists, and tax receipts, revealing the lives of ordinary ancient Egyptians.

This achievement may also trigger debates on whether further investigation should be conducted on the Herculaneum villa. The entire floor of the Herculaneum villa has never been excavated, and Fowler and Richard Janko, a papyrus manuscript scholar at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, are convinced that the main library of the villa has never been found, with potentially thousands of scrolls still buried underground.

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