Undergrad Uses AI To Read 2,000-Year-Old Papyrus Scroll, Wins $40K


A 21-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska, Luke Farritor, has achieved a historic feat by utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) to decipher a word from a 2,000-year-old papyrus scroll.

The achievement was part of the Vesuvius Challenge, a competition that encourages individuals to employ modern technology to unlock the mysteries concealed within ancient rolled-up papyrus scrolls originating from the Roman city of Herculaneum, which was engulfed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 CE. The scrolls, having turned into fragile carbonized remnants, have remained unreadable for centuries.

First word was discovered in an unopened Herculaneum scroll. (Image: The Vesuvius Challenge)

Luke Farritor’s success was announced during a press conference held by the Vesuvius Challenge, where he was awarded the “First Letters” prize of $40,000.  His accomplishment involved deciphering more than ten characters in a 4-square-centimeter section of a scroll.

Farritor’s inspiration stemmed from the prior work of fellow contestant Casey Handmer, building on research conducted by Professor Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky’s EduceLab. He developed a machine-learning algorithm that enabled him to detect letters on the scroll, ultimately revealing the word “Porphyras,” which translates to “purple.”

Luke Farritor holding the unopened Herculaneum scroll. (Image: The Vesuvius Challenge)

During the press conference, Farritor shared his elation at the moment he first recognized the letters on the ancient scroll. He described his excitement and how he had to refine the photo to improve its legibility. Since Farritor was the first to report his findings, he was awarded the top prize, while the second-place winner, Youssef Nader, also uncovered the word in the same area, receiving a $10,000 cash prize.

The significance of Farritor’s use of AI lies in the fact that the scrolls are too delicate to be unfurled, as improper handling would reduce them to dust. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples, noted the extraordinary condition of these scrolls, describing them as “crazy,” “crumpled,” and “crushed.”

The 2,000-year-old papyrus scroll that was buried by Mount Vesuvius. (Image: EduceLab/The University of Kentucky)

These scrolls, dating back to 79 CE, had endured a volcanic eruption that covered Herculaneum in over 65 feet of volcanic ash. The extreme heat transformed them into fossilized carbon chunks, preserving their contents for over 1,700 years until their excavation in 1752.

This remarkable achievement holds the promise of revolutionizing our understanding of ancient history and literature. While Farritor successfully decoded a word, many scrolls remain unread. As a result, the Vesuvius Challenge has posed a new challenge for researchers to decipher four passages in two scanned scrolls, offering a grand prize of $700,000. Luke Farritor’s use of AI has provided a glimpse into the past, shedding light on the wealth of knowledge these ancient scrolls may still contain.

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