These charred, ancient logs of ancient papyrus may hide some of the of most important writing of human history.
Burned and carbonized in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, the scrolls were found under meters of ash and dirt, in what would have been a library inside an enormous villa. Over 500 scrolls were found, all of which were in charred, unreadable form.
The ancient, charred scrolls proved to be so fragile, that any attempt to open them, even by the most careful historians, proved to be impossible, with the papyrus simply falling apart.
Enter technology, and the clever approach led by Dr. Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky. Using X-ray tomography, he began peering inside the scrolls, unearthing single letters that could be strung together into words. But that level of technology proved to be inefficient at deciphering the scrolls fully.
Now Seales and team have launched the Vesuvius Challenge, which encourages the public to tackle the papyrus scrolls using machine learning. The grand prize awards $700,000 to the team to:
“Read at least 4 separate passages of continuous and plausible text from the scrolls, each at least 140 characters long.”
The contest should surely lead to breakthroughs in reading the Herculaneum scrolls, which may contain completely new, previously unknown text, or one of the lost Greek epic poems.
“In Herculaneum, twenty meters of hot mud and ash bury an enormous villa once owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Inside, there is a vast library of papyrus scrolls.
The scrolls are carbonized by the heat of the volcanic debris. But they are also preserved. For centuries, as virtually every ancient text exposed to the air decays and disappears, the library of the Villa of the Papyri waits underground, intact.”