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AI reveals scroll’s lost text after it was scorched by Mount Vesuvius eruption 2,000 years ago


For the first time, an entire word and several letters have been decoded from a scorched and carbonized scroll that barely survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius’ in A.D. 79. That word — πορφύραc in ancient Greek — means “purple dye” or “clothes of purple,” a new artificial intelligence (AI) analysis finds.

The text is from one of hundreds of scrolls and papyri that were deemed unreadable when they were unearthed in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum in Italy in the 1750s. But on Thursday (Oct. 12), the Vesuvius Challenge — a machine-learning competition for discovering the words within the Herculaneum papyri — awarded $40,000 to Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for his detective work.

“I was walking around at night and randomly checked my most recent code outputs on my phone,” Farritor, a SpaceX intern, said in a statement. “I didn’t expect any substantial results, so when half a dozen letters appeared on my screen, I was completely overjoyed.”

AI decoded Greek characters, πορφύραc, translate to “purple dye” or “clothes of purple.” (Image credit: Vesuvius Challenge.)

The Vesuvius Challenge was set up in March by Brent Seales, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky, and colleagues, who worked in partnership with a number of institutions worldwide — including EduceLab, the Library of the Institut de France and Silicon Valley investors. The challenge made the partners’ software available to contestants, along with thousands of 3D X-ray images of two rolled-up scrolls and three papyrus fragments.

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