Efforts to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls have reached an important turning point.
The collection of over one thousand papyrus scrolls, carbonised during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, was discovered in 1752 in what is now known as the Villa dei Papiri in Roman Herculaneum. Attempts to open the scrolls over the next two centuries determined that many of them were Greek philosophical texts, but the unwrapping process invariably destroyed the fragile, burnt papyri. More recently, researchers have turned to technology in the hope of seeing inside the remaining unopened scrolls.
It took Brent Seales, computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, almost 20 years to develop a method to do just this. The process begins with a highly detailed X-ray computed tomographic (CT) scan of the scroll, which then goes through several stages to produce a flat image of the surface of the rolled-up papyrus. Unfortunately, the carbon ink used in the Herculaneum scrolls has a similar density to the papyrus on which it is written, so is invisible in X-ray scans. However, earlier this year, Seales’ team proved that it was possible for an AI program to recognise symbols and letters in carbon ink on papyrus fragments that had already been opened. Now, they just needed to apply it to the sealed Herculaneum scrolls, and they came up with an ingenious way to speed up the process. In March 2023, Seales, in collaboration with several investors, launched the Vesuvius Challenge, a global competition offering $1 million in prizes, inviting researchers to build on Seales’ team’s software and scans of several scrolls and papyrus fragments in order to extract readable sections of writing.
It was a success. The ‘First Letters prize’ (worth $40,000) has just been awarded to Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, for successfully deciphering a series of 10 legible letters in a 4cm2 area. The section features three readable lines of Greek letters; among them is a whole word, πορφύραc (porphyras), meaning ‘purple’. Then, not a week later, Farritor’s achievement was followed by an even more remarkable breakthrough. The second winner, Youssef Nader, had tackled the same section of the scroll but was able to produce a section of more than four columns of text. Papyrologists are still debating the finer points of their translations but are certain that it is part of a Greek philosophical work, like other scrolls from Herculaneum, and is most likely a new, unknown text. Both the Classical experts and the technical teams hope to publish results of their research in the coming weeks.
This is only the beginning, though. The Vesuvius Challenge is now just waiting for someone to claim the Grand Prize: at least four separate passages of continuous and plausible text from the scrolls, each at least 140 characters long – worth $700,000. Brent Seales thinks it likely that it will be a matter of months before we reach this point. These discoveries represent a revolutionary step towards potentially unlocking the wealth of information in the unread Herculaneum scrolls and perhaps hundreds of other damaged ancient manuscripts in the future.
Text: Amy Brunskill / Images: EduceLab; Vesuvius Challenge