2000-Year Old Charred Manuscripts Reveal Their Secrets

Imagine trying to read a 2000-year old scroll from an ancient civilization. Now imagine that scroll is rolled up, and in a delicate, charred, carbonized form, having been engulfed by the fiery eruption of a volcano. The task would seem virtually impossible, and the information in the scroll lost forever. Right?|

As it turns out, new developments are changing that. Modern scanning techniques and machine learning tools have made it possible to read fragments of the heavily-damaged Herculaneum scrolls. Hopes are now that more of the ancient writings will be salvaged, giving us a new insight into the ancient past.

Library Fire

The Herculaneum scrolls stand as a haunting reminder of the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, which entombed them. For centuries, these scrolls have been deemed “unreadable” due to the damage sustained from the eruption, leaving the wisdom contained within their tightly wound rolls inaccessible to the modern world. The scrolls were part of a library that is the only one to have survived from ancient times.

The bundles of scrolls were quickly carbonized due to the intense heat of volcanic matter from the eruption. Turned into delicate, charred blocks, they were then effectively preserved in this damaged state by the layers of rock that formed around them. They sat silently in their carbonized state, waiting for someone to unlock their secrets, until being discovered in 1752. A variety of methods were attempted over the years to unroll the scrolls and recover the information within. Whether mechanical, chemical, or otherwise, these methods often damaged or destroyed the scrolls entirely.

More recently, attempts have been made to decipher the remaining scrolls via a safer, non-contact method. Brent Seales, a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, has been at the forefront of these efforts, involving the use of CT scans to image the scrolls non-destructively, before digitally “unrolling” them to be read. These techniques have been used to great success on other aged, folded transcripts. Often, the density of the ink compared to the paper makes it easy to find with a CT scan. Unfortunately, the carbon-based ink used on the Herculaneum scrolls complicated matters, as it does not readily stand out from the carbon-based papyrus itself on a CT scan.

New Methods Bear Fruit

The scrolls weren’t offering any low-hanging fruit, but Seales was undeterred. In 2019, a new method using a particle accelerator to X-ray the scrolls at higher resolution was used, with the hope that machine learning methods could identify tiny surface details that indicate the presence of the carbon-based ink on the page. Earlier this year, the techniques started to deliver promising results, with decoding the scrolls now looking more and more like a problem that could be solved with software.

Seales went on to establish the Vesuvius Challenge to help decode the scrolls from the scan data. The grand prize stands at $700,000 for the first team to read a scroll by December 31, 2023. To claim it, a team must read at least four separate passages of “continuous and plausible text,” each being at least 140 characters long. The prize has spurred people across the world to try and decode the scrolls using provided CT data. Now, the progress prize has been claimed, with two individuals receiving $40,000 and $10,000 each for decoding multiple letters, and even a whole word.

Machine learning methods revealed a fragment of text buried deep inside one of the scrolls. Credit: YouTube/Univ. of Kentucky Pigman College of Engineering

The breakthrough was made by challenge contestants Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old SpaceX intern, and Youssef Nader, an Egyptian biorobotics graduate student. Each individually discovered the same word in the scrolls, with Farritor being the first to achieve the milestone. The pair revealed the Greek characters πορφύρας, which translates to “purple dye” or “clothes of purple.” These characters are just a small fraction of the multiple characters and lines of text that have been extracted by the duo. Farritor and Nader used machine learning methods to virtually unwrap many layers of papyrus, revealing the ink within X-ray CT scans of the scroll. The results were independently verified by expert papyrologists, who assessed the letter shapes found for validity.

Digitally unrolling the charred scrolls helps to reveal the secrets within. Credit: Vesuvius Challenge

The Vesuvius Challenge was launched as a global competition to read the charred scrolls after Seales and his team demonstrated that an AI program could successfully extract letters and symbols from X-ray images of the unrolled papyri. Thousands of 3D X-ray images of two rolled-up scrolls and three papyrus fragments were released as part of the challenge, incentivizing global researchers and scholars to build upon the AI technology and expedite the decoding process.

The Vesuvius Challenge has succeeded in its mission to harness the collective intelligence of over a thousand research teams worldwide, all working together to solve a problem that would typically have only a handful of people working on it. The results have been nothing short of remarkable, proving that the seemingly impossible task of reading the Herculaneum scrolls is not so unachievable. It could potentially unlock one of the largest discoveries of written text from the ancient world.

As we look to the future, the race is on to read every unopened papyrus scroll in the collection, with over 600 scrolls still waiting to be decoded. The possibilities are limitless, with the potential to uncover ancient wisdom that has remained hidden for over 2,000 years. The Vesuvius Challenge has paved the way for a new era in the field of digital restoration, providing a blueprint for how we can use modern technology to unlock the secrets of the past and learn from the wisdom of ancient civilizations. As Seales aptly puts it, “Overcoming damage incurred during a 2,000-year span is no small challenge. But that’s what researchers do — together, we conquer the seemingly impossible.”

38 thoughts on “2000-Year Old Charred Manuscripts Reveal Their Secrets

  1. Utterly fascinating. This reminds me of those lost Picasso paintings that they found existing as other parts of his work after X-raying them, whether it was reusing canvas or whatever.

    The only concern: to do all this work, and perhaps to find out its some ancient Roman’s grocery list. It’s not like we can ask someone from back then if this belonged to a scholar.

    But still: fascinating.

        1. Ea-nāṣir’s name has lived nearly 4000 years on the back of his terrible customer service.

          This is terribly ironic in light of the themes of the Epic of Gilgamesh and in terms of who presently succeeds in our own society.

    1. We know it isn’t just a bunch of groceries lists- they came from the library of what was basically a very wealthy Roman man’s beach house (the Herculaneum villa). It is thought that the part of the library that has been excavated so far is only the second floor of it, and that the first floor would contain more texts in Latin, based on what we know of the layout of other ancient libraries (none of which actually survive to the present). This collection of scrolls is the only fully intact library which survives from the classical period, and could absolutely revolutionize and revitalize the field of classics if they are all finally read. But as for groceries lists- we do have quite a heap of those from the ancient world. That is mostly what papyrologists work on presently. I studied classics in college and have been following the saga of these scrolls ever since. I am so so so excited that I might be able to one day read them.

      1. To be fair, I did say it was STILL fascinating! xD

        But I am always interested in history – and yes, I do realize that, history, just like modern life, is chock full of common stuff too. My fingers are personally crossed for them magically finding Chinghis (Westernized: Genghis) Khan’s grave one day.

  2. “The possibilities are limitless, with the potential to uncover ancient wisdom that has remained hidden for over 2,000 years. ”

    It seems like stories come up every so often of someone inventing a way to read some previously un-readable, damaged ancient scrolls. But I hardly ever hear anything about what they read in them.

    Where are the translations of previously lost stories that were found in old scrolls? Where are the articles about new discoveries regarding how ancient people built their monuments and buildings or ran their societies? Is it only ever stuff that is only interesting to professional archaeologists?

    Not that those really would go here on HaD. Well.. maybe the building technique ones…

    It’s just that it seems like sensationalist headlines that some whole library of lost ancient works come out all the time but then are never heard from again.

    1. You rarely hear about the results of reading previously unreadable scrolls because they’re almost always uninteresting outside a small circle of scholars – you might get a new copy of (say) parts of Homer, which maybe clarifies a few fine details of the text, but doesn’t significantly change it (for example, providing evidence that a suspected change in wording by medieval monks did or did not happen).

      Similarly, you might find a new recipe for ova spongia ex lacte, or a previously unknown variation on a dormouse recipe. Again, not interesting to most of us.

    2. They’ve been attempting to read this set of scrolls for over twenty years.
      So I think many of the stories that have popped up are about these ones, and so far there isn’t much content to talk about.

  3. The first citation reads, in part, ‘The team used “virtual unwrapping” to read text from the ancient En-Gedi scroll — revealing it to be the beginning of the Book of Leviticus.’ While not a lost story, it does indicate that part of the process has already been used successfully.

    The Herculaneum scrolls are part of a library. It’s likely that very little of the library will be trivial, some will already be known and some will be works known to be lost. A few may even be documents unsuspected by modern historians. The last 2 categories are treasures that should be valued by everyone.

  4. Please do a more in depth article about all the other people working on unwrapping these scrolls! It’s not just ink detection, but unwrapping the scroll and doing physical experiments and CT scanning!

  5. Sounds like that fun tech from the beginning of “Inherit the Stars”. With lunar activity ramping up, I guess it would be fun to find a Cerian corpse on the moon in time to match the series!

    1. I’m not a historian — but if I had to guess, perhaps the villa they found them in was constructed some time before it was destroyed (if they are right about the supposed owner, it would have probably been built in the late BCE years ). Or contained texts that were written before it was built.

      Some of the discovered texts date to ~100 BCE. I bet there are some that are a little under 2000 years old too.

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