GENERICO.ruScience"Step on the Moon": AI allowed to read the first word of an ancient scroll

“Step on the Moon”: AI allowed to read the first word of an ancient scroll

The ancient papyrus burned during the eruption of Vesuvius began to reveal its secrets

Researchers used artificial intelligence to read the word on an ancient scroll that was burned during the eruption of Vesuvius. The University of Kentucky has challenged computer scientists to reveal the contents of a charred papyrus, “a potential treasure trove for historians.”

The ancient papyrus, burnt during the eruption of Vesuvius, began to reveal its secrets

When the explosion from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius reached Herculaneum in 79 AD, it burned to the ground hundreds of ancient scrolls in the library of a luxurious villa and buried the Roman city under a layer of ash and pumice, writes The Guardian.

The disaster seemed to be destroyed the ancient scrolls forever, but almost 2,000 years later, researchers have extracted the first word from one of the texts, using artificial intelligence to peer deep inside the fragile, charred remains.

The discovery was announced Thursday by Professor Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, and other scientists who launched the Vesuvius challenge in March to speed up text reading. Backed by Silicon Valley investors, the competition offers cash prizes to researchers who extract legible words from the charred scrolls.

“This is the first text recovered from one of these rolled, intact scrolls,” said Stephen Parsons, a staff researcher at the university's Digital Restoration Initiative. Since then, researchers have discovered several more letters from the ancient scroll.

To launch the project, Professor Seales and his team published thousands of 3D X-ray images of two rolled scrolls and three papyrus fragments. They also released an artificial intelligence program that they trained to read the letters in the scrolls based on the subtle changes that ancient ink made to the structure of papyrus.

The unopened scrolls belong to the collection of the Institute of France in Paris and are among hundreds found in a library in a villa believed to have belonged to a high-ranking Roman statesman, possibly Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Two computer science students, Luke Farritor of Nebraska and Yusef Nader of Berlin, who took part in the Vesuvius challenge, refined their search and independently came across the same ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: “πο ρφίραc”, which means “purple”. Farritor who finds the word first wins $40,000, and Nader wins $10,000.

Now the race begins to read the surrounding text, writes The Guardian. Dr. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the Federico II University of Naples, notes that three lines of the scroll, containing up to 10 letters, are now legible, and more are expected. The last section shows at least four columns of text.

“This word is our first dive into an unrevealed ancient book reminiscent of royalty, wealth and even ridicule,” says Professor Seales. – What will the context reveal? Pliny the Elder explores “purple” in his “Natural History” as a process for producing Tyrian purple from shellfish. The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus was mocked while wearing purple robes before being crucified. What this particular scroll is about is unknown at this time, but I believe it will be revealed soon. Old and new history, which begins for us with “purple”, is an incredible place.

As the only intact library remaining from ancient times, the scrolls of Herculaneum are of great interest. Most of the texts analyzed so far are written in Ancient Greek, but some may be Latin texts. The fragments showed letters from Philodemus's work on vices and contrary virtues, as well as details of the history of the Hellenistic dynasties.

“There is a strong suspicion that the non-philosophical part of the library has yet to be discovered, and here fantasy runs wild: new plays by Sophocles, poems Sappho, the Annals of Ennius, the lost books of Livy and so on, said Robert Fowler, emeritus professor of Greek at the University of London, Bristol. – It would also be great to find so-called documentary papyri: letters, business papers, and so on; “It would be a real treasure trove for historians.”

“For me, reading the words from the Herculaneum scrolls is like setting foot on the moon,” added Professor Seales. – Honestly, I knew the text was there, waiting for our arrival, but the arrival only happens at the last stage. And with such a talented team working together, reading the words is a step into new territory, and we took it. Now it's time to explore”.


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