When the blast from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius reached Herculaneum in AD79, it burned hundreds of ancient scrolls to a crisp in the library of a luxury villa and buried the Roman town in ash and pumice.
The disaster appeared to have destroyed the scrolls for good, but nearly 2,000 years later researchers have extracted the first word from one of the texts, using artificial intelligence to peer deep inside the delicate, charred remains.
The discovery was announced on Thursday by Prof Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, and others who launched the Vesuvius challenge in March to accelerate the reading of the texts. Backed by Silicon Valley investors, the challenge offers cash prizes to researchers who extract legible words from the carbonised scrolls.
“This is the first recovered text from one of these rolled-up, intact scrolls,” said Stephen Parsons, a staff researcher on the digital restoration initiative at the university. Researchers have since uncovered more letters from the ancient scroll.
Brent Seales, director of the digital restoration initiative at the University of Kentucky, examines a piece of Herculaneum scroll. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images
To launch the Vesuvius challenge, Seales and his team released thousands of 3D X-ray images of two rolled-up scrolls and three papyrus fragments. They also released an artificial intelligence program they had trained to read letters in the scrolls based on subtle changes that the ancient ink made to the structure of the papyrus.
The unopened scrolls belong to a collection held by the Institut de France in Paris and are among hundreds recovered from the library at the villa thought to be owned by a senior Roman statesman, possibly Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
Two computer science students, Luke Farritor in Nebraska and Youssef Nader in Berlin, who took up the Vesuvius challenge, improved the search process and independently hit on the same ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: “πορφύραc”, meaning “purple”. Farritor, who was first to find the word, wins $40,000 with Nader winning $10,000.
The race is now on to read the surrounding text. Dr Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, said three lines of the scroll, containing up to 10 letters, were now readable with more expected to come. A recent section shows at least four columns of text.
“This word is our first dive into an unopened ancient book, evocative of royalty, wealth, and even mockery,” Seales said. “What will the context show? Pliny the Elder explores ‘purple’ in his ‘natural history’ as a production process for Tyrian purple from shellfish. The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus was mocked as he was clothed in purple robes before crucifixion. What this particular scroll is discussing is still unknown, but I believe it will soon be revealed. An old, new story that starts for us with ‘purple’ is an incredible place to be.”
Computer engineers found an ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: πορφύραc, meaning purple. Photograph: University of Kentucky
As the only intact library to survive from antiquity, there is immense interest in the Herculaneum scrolls. Most of the texts analysed so far are written in ancient Greek, but some may be Latin texts. Fragments have revealed letters from Philodemus’s work On Vices and the Opposite Virtues, and details of Hellenistic dynastic history.
“The strong suspicion is that the non-philosophical part of the library remains to be discovered, and here fantasy runs riot: new plays of Sophocles, poems of Sappho, the Annals of Ennius, lost books of Livy and so on,” said Robert Fowler, emeritus professor of Greek at the University of Bristol. “It would be great too to find so-called documentary papyri: letters, business papers, and so on; these would be a treasure-trove for historians.”
“For me, reading words from within the Herculaneum scrolls is like stepping onto the moon,” Seales added. “Honestly, I knew that the text was there, waiting for us to arrive, but arrival only happens at the last step. And with such a talented team working together, reading the words is that step into new territory, and we’ve taken it. Now it is time to explore.”