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The wonderful story behind reading burnt scrolls

The optimistic estimates today are Only one percent All of those works have survived to this day. How much literary, artistic, philosophical and scientific wealth have we lost over the years. Now researchers with the help of artificial intelligence have managed to decipher the writing on a crumbling papyrus that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The cracks that Handamer discovered, indicating the presence of ink in the scroll
The cracks that Handamer discovered, indicating the presence of ink in the scroll

Almost two thousand years ago, one of the greatest recorded disasters in ancient history occurred: the volcano Vesuvius erupted and buried all the inhabitants of the city of Pompeii under whole meters of volcanic ash and lava that quickly cooled and turned into stone. An entire city, with all its inhabitants, became a lifeless wasteland in one day.

We can't bring the dead back to life, but what about their words? What about the books they wrote, the ideas they conceived, the songs they wrote? What happened to the scrolls and papyri in the city, which surely contained the most famous works of the ancient world? 

Even these, not surprisingly, did not survive the catastrophe. We can learn about their fate from the remains of the villa in the nearby town - Herculaneum - which was also buried under the ashes. The villa contained a library with hundreds of scrolls - a treasure trove for the people of that time - and they all experienced temperatures that were enough to kill any person. They shriveled, charred and lost their original shape. It is impossible to open them today without them crumbling immediately. As defined by one of the reporters of the Wall Street Journal

"The remains of the Herculaneum papyrus do not look like something left behind by an ancient civilization that might contain the secrets of science, mathematics and philosophy. They look more like something your dog did on the carpet.”

And yet, they are preserved, if only in their damaged and unreadable form. In this respect, they fare better than the vast majority of literary works produced in ancient history. The optimistic estimates today are Only one percent All of those works have survived to this day. How much literary, artistic, philosophical and scientific wealth we have lost over the years! 

Is it possible that the Herculaneum scrolls can help us recover some of the knowledge of the ancients? But how can we find out what is written in them, if it is impossible to open them, and if the original ink itself was almost certainly corrupted by the terrible heat experienced by the scrolls?

Here three factors enter the story: money, cooperation and... artificial intelligence.

the money

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are known for their unique hobbies, and Nat Friedman is no different. He is known in the community as an experienced entrepreneur and investor, but his close friends know that one of his greatest loves is ancient Rome. When Friedman learned about the existence of the Herculaneum scrolls, he decided to help harness researchers all over the world to decipher the contents of the scrolls.

Fortunately for Friedman - and, of course, thanks to his skills - he does not lack money. 

If he were a typical rich Friedman, he would probably donate several hundred-thousand dollars to the lab of one of the researchers in the field, or even establish a new department at a cost of several million dollars. But Friedman is one of the new rich, and knows very well that often the best solutions come from unexpected places. Specifically, they come from the crowd: from the millions of talented people who are waiting for the opportunity to do interesting and unusual projects, and win money, respect and experience.

And so "Etgar Vesavius" was born.

Friedman and other friends jointly started the competition called "Etgar and Savios" a year ago, and raised a particularly tempting prize for it: 700,000 dollars that will be awarded to the first group to decipher four paragraphs with at least 140 letters in each by the end of 2023. 

And thousands of young experts in artificial intelligence, X-ray scans, image decoding and any other field flocked to participate in the competition. 

Almost immediately they discovered that the task was impossible. The scroll was baked at 600 degrees Celsius for many days, and was probably ancient and damaged even before that. Researchers have already used X-ray scanning to see the contents of the scroll, but it is difficult to decipher which photographs contain the different layers, and in any case it is impossible to distinguish between the ink and the papyrus in such scans

Fortunately for the treasure hunters, Friedman was smart enough to simultaneously place another series of prizes that totaled $300,000. These awards were given to anyone who managed to achieve small breakthroughs - on the condition that they share the information about them with all the other competitors.


What will the collaborators be rewarded for? On small achievements - but when they were built one-on-top of the other, they created a ladder on which all researchers could move up and up. 

One of those achievements was the key to the discovery of the first ever word in the Herculaneum scrolls. Casey Hendmer, a doctor of theoretical astrophysics and a cluster expert, went through the x-ray scans of the scrolls and examined them for long hours. Literally, he stared at them for hours. After enough hours of staring, he recognized a detail that no one had discovered before: traces of dry, charred ink that looked like tiny cracks in the surface. It is almost impossible to see these cracks, or to distinguish them from the least damaged surface of the scroll. But Handemar succeeded, sharing his discovery with others on the competition's online discussion platform—and winning a $10,000 prize for being "The first inkwell” in the scroll.

Handamer's discovery interested the others enough to start scanning for similar cracks in the scrolls, but very few were found. At this point Luke Paritor, an undergraduate student, came into the picture and started running an artificial intelligence engine at night to find more cracks in the scrolls. Since each such crack indicates the existence of a letter in the area, and since letters connect to words, the method he developed led to the detection of a large number of cracks. Paritor trained the AI ​​on the additional rifts, and so its abilities grew night by night. In no time, she reached a superhuman level in finding ink residue in the scroll. When enough adjacent cracks were collected together and the image was processed in the right way, they formed letters.

In the end, Paritor believed he had succeeded in putting together one complete word. He submitted the picture he put together - along with the complete methodology - in the hope of winning the intermediate prize of "The First Letters". on the competition website The reaction of the experts who received the photo is described - 

"… They gasped in surprise: they could immediately read the word "Porphyras", although the letters were faint."

Paritor won forty-thousand dollars, and no less important: world fame. He is the first person who managed to read a complete word from the depths of a charred scroll from two thousand years ago. But thanks to the fact that he shared his findings with the community, within a few hours everyone started moving in the same direction. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Yosef Nader, an Egyptian PhD student in Berlin, tried to explore a different direction. He trained artificial intelligence on torn scrolls, demonstrated initial success and won a small prize. He continued to perfect the approach and the artificial intelligence he created, and managed to find complete letters and words - which earned him another award. This progress is also shared with the other competitors in the competition. 

This could have gone on and on, but the competition was deliberately limited to 2023. In the week before the deadline, Pritor and Nader decided to join forces with a third researcher who achieved good results, and who fed additional information to the artificial intelligence engines they had developed. Together, all three managed to surpass the achievements of the other competitors and reached the long-awaited success: more than two thousand letters in a scroll that had never been read before. And also, 700,000 dollars that certainly did not harm the bank account of the young researchers.

The deciphered parts from the scroll. Originally from the Vesuvius project
The deciphered parts from the scroll. Originally from the Vesuvius project

If this sum sounds like an excessive expenditure for the reading of two thousand letters in an ancient scroll, you should know that there are hundreds of scrolls in a similar state of destruction. Thanks to the tools developed by the three researchers - along with all the other participants in the competition - it will be possible in the coming years to be directly exposed to the writing of the ancient Romans. And not only them. The same technique could also be used to read the crumbling papyri wrapped around Egyptian mummies. 

"There are boxes of these things in the back rooms of museums." said excitedly Robert Fowler, Professor of Greek History at the University of Bristol, in an interview with The Guardian. "It's a perfect game changer. There are hundreds of these scrolls waiting to be read.”

But what was written in this particular scroll?

The meaning of life and in general

The scroll apparently contains the writings of the ancient philosopher Philodemus. In fact, there is a possibility that he wrote it himself, as it has previously been suggested that he was the owner of the original library in Herculaneum. The deciphered paragraphs focus on a topic that preoccupies humans even today: what is the meaning of the good and happy life. Philodemus, not surprisingly, philosophizes about food and music and the pleasure these bring to humans. As Friedman said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal - 

"You can almost see someone writing it on Substack [a service for delivering digital flashes to users] now."

Friedman touches on a somewhat unpleasant point. Human knowledge is built and developed over time, and philosophical ideas that seemed groundbreaking two thousand years ago can seem to us today to have the same level of sophistication as a child or a grumpy old man on Twitter. There is no reason to expect that the Herculaneum scrolls will reveal to us the north of the universe and hidden philosophical secrets that will change the way of our lives. 

But they can reveal so much more to us.

These scrolls, and many others that will be deciphered through the efforts of human and computer researchers, can enrich the mosaic of our knowledge about our ancient ancestors. We can learn about their customs, their foods, their religion and their beliefs. 

Perhaps, if we are lucky, we will be able to find original works that have so far disappeared from the stage of history. Sophocles, for example, wrote the play "Antigone", which we still study in schools today, along with more than 120 other plays. How many of them have survived to this day? Only seven. What if we find a few more such plays, in the valleys of the scrolls? What if we find the lost poem, hinted at in the Odyssey, that describes the struggle of Odysseus and Achilles? Or scrolls that themselves describe the history of Greek cities and its people? Or one of the dozens of lost books of the researcher and historian Pliny the Elder?

And who knows - maybe it will even be possible to find technological and scientific secrets in these scrolls. We are still trying to understand how exactly the Romans produced their special concrete, which has survived for more than two thousand years. There are ideas and hypotheses, but maybe we can find the exact recipe in the scrolls. Perhaps we will discover more details about engineering works of unbelievable complexity from that period, such as "Antikythera mechanism", which was an ancient machine that calculated the position of the celestial bodies. Perhaps we will discover more details about Archimedes' mechanical inventions.

And maybe not. Maybe these will be 'just' more scrolls with worn-out truths and advice of ancient philosophers. Scrolls that recommend us to cooperate and work together as human beings. Scrolls that praise the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. They will still be valuable, of course, and will expand our understanding of ancient history. But we won't need them to know all these things. 

This, after all, is the lesson of the competition itself to decipher the scrolls: when good people work, research and think together, and cooperate even when they are sitting in different countries - wonderful things happen. 

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