Ancient Roman Scroll Reveals Insights into Epicurean Philosophy
In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers have used artificial intelligence (AI) to decipher the text of an ancient Roman scroll, shedding light on the philosophical beliefs of the time. The scroll, known as the Herculaneum scroll, was buried and carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two millennia ago. The Vesuvius Challenge, launched by University of Kentucky researcher Brent Seales, former GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, and entrepreneur Daniel Gross, aimed to unlock the secrets of the scroll using CT scans and machine learning.
The challenge attracted tech-savvy sleuths from around the world, with a prize of $700,000 up for grabs. The winning team, consisting of students Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger, submitted 15 columns of text, which preliminary analysis suggests discuss the impact of scarcity or abundance of food on human pleasure. This marks a significant milestone in the quest to unravel the Herculaneum scrolls, and a personal triumph for Seales, who has been working on this project for the past two decades.
The Vesuvius Challenge provided a platform for collaboration and innovation, attracting new contributors and accelerating progress. Seales compared the collective efforts of the participants to ten years of human work accomplished in just three months. He expressed his amazement at the power of AI, tomography, and computation in uncovering the mysteries of the past.
The potential impact of these efforts is immense. Michael McOsker, a researcher familiar with the scrolls, estimates that they could yield the equivalent of around 200 new books. The Herculaneum scrolls are the only surviving library from antiquity, and any new knowledge gained from their study is invaluable.
Seales’ journey to unravel ancient texts began in the mid-1990s when he became interested in AI and computer vision. He collaborated with a professor at the University of Kentucky to digitize the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. This sparked his fascination with the power of digitization and restoration. Seales realized that digitizing a text could go beyond preservation; it could also enhance image quality and enable the unwrapping of damaged documents.
The breakthrough came in 2004 when Seales was introduced to the Herculaneum scrolls by Richard Janko, a classics scholar from the University of Michigan. The scrolls, written in Greek, were preserved by the volcanic ash and debris from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Despite their carbonized state, Seales saw the potential to uncover their contents using his imaging expertise.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD is a well-known historical event, immortalized in Pliny the Younger’s letters. The ash and debris from the eruption buried the city of Herculaneum, preserving the villa and its library of papyrus scrolls. The excavation efforts in the 1700s unearthed over 600 scrolls, with some estimates suggesting there could be up to 1,800 in total.
Antonio Piaggio, a scholar from the Vatican Library, attempted to unwrap some of the scrolls using a machine he invented. However, his efforts were not always successful. The unwrapped scrolls predominantly contained Epicurean philosophy, leading researchers to believe that the remaining scrolls may hold similar content.
The successful decoding of the Herculaneum scroll opens up new possibilities for understanding ancient Roman society and philosophy. It is a testament to the power of AI and technological advancements in unlocking the secrets of the past. As researchers continue to explore the remaining scrolls, there is hope that more insights into the ancient world will be revealed.