A team of researchers from around the world has achieved the feat of reading fragments of text from one of the charred scrolls of the ancient library of Herculaneum, buried 2000 years ago by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

These scrolls were discovered by chance in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum in the late 18th century. However, their content remained inaccessible due to the carbonization process they underwent during the eruption, which made them a mystery to scholars for centuries.

The breakthrough was achieved thanks to the application of high-resolution X-ray tomography at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator in the UK. Researchers scanned and digitally reconstructed the interior of the scrolls without the need to physically unroll them and cause damage, as had been unsuccessfully attempted in the past.

This technique allowed virtually segmenting the folds of the ancient papyrus layer and digitally unfolding it flat. Key to this was the work of the segmentation team led by researchers Seth Parker, Ben Kyles, and David Josey.

Once these two-dimensional sections were available, the major pending challenge was to identify the trace of the writing, practically invisible to the naked eye. For this, scientists worldwide are participating in the so-called “Vesuvius Challenge”, driven by researchers from the University of Kentucky and the startup EduceLab.

The goal is to train artificial intelligence models capable of recognizing ink residues in the tomographies. After nearly a year of work, a team composed of Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger succeeded in developing the winning techniques.

Their method, which combined deep learning and machine learning, achieved an 85% accuracy in recognizing letters in a fragment equivalent to 15 columns of text, representing almost 5% of the total content of the scroll.

Thus, researchers were able to transcribe for the first time in history words from the hidden philosophical text, possibly written by Philodemus of Gadara, of the Epicurean school, on the subject of pleasure in the 1st century AD. Fragments like in the case of food, we do not immediately believe that scarce things are absolutely more pleasant now illuminate a previously inaccessible ancient world.

Another passage wonders if it is easier to do without abundant goods naturally. These questions will be considered frequently, reads the nearly 2000-year-old text.

This scientific milestone represents a revolution for the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. Furthermore, it lays the groundwork for the systematic reading of hundreds of scrolls yet to be explored, which could contain an even larger library buried underground.

A project that demonstrated that through the collaboration of thousands of minds internationally, science can achieve unthinkable feats and recover voices from the past in pursuit of a greater understanding of our origins.


Vesuvius Challenge

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