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For more than 2,000 years, the Herculaneum scrolls, damaged by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption, remained inaccessible. AI recently deciphered a portion of these ancient scrolls, revealing long-hidden knowledge buried in ash since 79 CE.

Herculean text penned during the emergence of world religions 

University of Kentucky, EduceLab, Library of the Institut de France, and Vesuvius Challenge founders collaborated to successfully translate a word from sealed Herculaneum scrolls, a significant achievement in historical preservation and linguistic research.

Computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, Brent Seales, highlights that these texts were penned during the emergence of world religions, under Roman Empire rule, with much of that era’s writing lost. Nevertheless, the Herculaneum scrolls have been recovered, shedding light on this ancient period. 

Greek characters πορφύραc, discovered by Vesuvius Challenge participants Luke Farritor and Youssef Nader, in their research, represent “purple dye” or “clothes of purple.”

Farritor, a 21-year-old SpaceX intern, expresses excitement about EduceLab’s progress in virtually unwrapping scrolls. He utilized their foundation and input from other contestants to create a machine learning detector for finding letters. 

Following Farritor’s revelation, Nader, an Egyptian biorobotics graduate student in Berlin, independently unearthed the same inscription in the same region, yielding clearer findings. Nader expressed astonishment, stating, “It took me days to process, as if peering through a time machine into the past.” Expert papyrologists, hailing from nations holding Herculaneum scrolls, authenticated the text from a preserved papyrus fragment, igniting excitement.

AI read complete text not just letters

Federica Nicolardi, a papyrology assistant professor at the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, expresses excitement about reading complete words, not just letter sequences, from an untouched scroll at the Library of Herculaneum. This scroll holds previously unknown texts, and Nicolardi anticipates further research to reveal its content, the scribe, and the date of origin.

The word “purple” has historical importance due to its use in ancient Rome, made from sea snail glands. Nicolardi emphasizes the value of reading any text. A two-decade journey led by Seales, with support from investors like Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross, aimed to use AI to decipher Herculaneum scrolls through X-ray images, revealing their hidden content.