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AI Deciphers 2,000-Year-Old Scroll from Mount Vesuvius Eruption
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In a groundbreaking archaeological breakthrough, researchers have utilized artificial intelligence to unlock the secrets hidden within a 2,000-year-old scroll, preserved through the fiery eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Photo credit: Igor Omilaev
The charred remnants of this papyrus hold the reflections of a Greek philosopher, shedding light on previously concealed insights into the Epicurean school of philosophy, which delves into the pursuit of pleasure and hedonism.
Through the innovative application of digital scanning, 3D mapping, and AI algorithms, the researchers managed to virtually unfurl the scroll, which initially resembled nothing more than a lump of charcoal, and decipher its ancient text.
Authored by the philosopher Philodemus, the recovered passage provides a glimpse into his contemplations on the relationship between food scarcity and the enjoyment derived from it.
The triumphant achievement was spearheaded by a collaborative effort involving Youssef Nader from FU Berlin, Luke Farritor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Julian Schilliger from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. Encouraged by their success, they aspire to employ similar techniques to unravel additional texts concealed within ancient artifacts.
The journey to uncover these ancient treasures traces back to the 18th century, when a farmer stumbled upon a buried Roman villa while excavating a well in the vicinity of the ancient town of Herculaneum. Within the villa lay a trove of carbonized papyrus scrolls, preserved by the intense heat of volcanic debris from the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
Despite their remarkable preservation, the fragile nature of these scrolls posed a challenge to traditional methods of exploration. Previous attempts to unravel them resulted in the destruction of several scrolls, leaving over 600 still sealed and unreadable. The successful deciphering of these scrolls would effectively double the existing corpus of ancient literature.
To invigorate scholarly interest and incentivize further research, a challenge was initiated in March 2023, offering an $850,000 reward for any breakthrough in deciphering the Herculaneum scrolls. After a year marked by significant advancements, the prize was claimed, marking a historic milestone in the study of ancient texts.
Reflecting on this achievement, classicist Bob Fowler from the University of Bristol, who served as one of the prize judges, expressed his enthusiasm, describing it as a "historic moment" with the potential to unveil a wealth of new insights.
As the journey to unlock the mysteries of the Herculaneum scrolls continues, fueled by the convergence of ancient history and cutting-edge technology, each revelation promises to illuminate a fragment of humanity's distant past, enriching our understanding of the cultural tapestry that binds us across millennia.