Damaged ancient papyrus scrolls dating back to the 1st century CE are finally being deciphered by the Vesuvius Challenge contest winners using computer vision and AI machine learning programs. The scrolls were carbonized during the eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE and have been all-but-inaccessible using normal restoration methods, as they have been reduced to a fragile, charred log. Three winners–Luke Farritor (US), Youssef Nader (Egypt), and Julian Schilliger (Switzerland)–will split the $700,000 grand prize after deciphering roughly 2,000 characters making up 15 columns of never-before-seen Greek texts.
In October 2023, Farritor, a 21-year-old Nebraska native and former SpaceX intern won the challenge’s “First Word” contest after developing a machine learning model to parse out the first few characters and form the word Πορφύραc—or porphyras, ancient Greek for “purple.” He then teamed up with Nader and Schlinder to tackle the remaining fragments using their own innovative AI programs. The newly revealed text is an ancient philosopher’s meditation on life’s pleasures—and a dig on people who don’t appreciate them.
A 1,700 year journey
The scrolls once resided within a villa library believed to belong to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, south of Pompeii in the town of Herculaneum. Upon its eruption, Mount Vesuvius’ historic volcanic blast near-instantly torched the library before subsequently burying it in ash and pumice. The carbonized scrolls remained lost for centuries until rediscovered by a farmer in 1752. Over the next few decades, a Vatican scholar utilized an original, ingenious weighted string method to carefully “unroll” much of the collection. Even then, the monk’s process produced thousands of small, crumbled fragments which he then needed to laboriously piece back together.
Fast forward to 2019, and around 270 “Villa of the Papyri” scrolls still remained inaccessible—a lingering mystery prompting a team at the University of Kentucky to 3D scan the archive and launch the Vesuvius Challenge in 2023. After releasing open-source software alongside thousands of 3D X-ray scans made from three papyrus fragments and two scrolls, challenge sponsors offered over $1 million in various prizes to help develop new, high-tech methods for accessing the unknown contents.
What do the scrolls say?
According to a February 5 post on X from competition sponsor Nat Friedman, the first scroll’s final 15 columns were likely penned by Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, and discuss “music, food, and how to enjoy life’s pleasures.”
According to the Vesuvius Challenge announcement, two columns of the scroll, for example, center on whether or not the amount of available food influences the level of pleasure diners will feel from their meals. In this case, the scroll’s author argues it doesn’t: “[A]s too in the case of food, we do not right away believe things that are scarce to be absolutely more pleasant than those which are abundant.”
“In the closing section, he throws shade at unnamed ideological adversaries—perhaps the stoics?—who ‘have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in particular,'” Friedman also said on X.
Although much more remains to be uncovered, challenge organizers have previously hypothesized the scrolls could include long-lost works including the poems of Sappho.
But despite the grand prize announcement, the Vesuvius Challenge is far from finished—the newly translated text makes up just 5 percent of a single scroll, after all. In the same X announcement, Friedman revealed the competition’s next phase: a new, $100,000 prize to the first team to retrieve at least 90 percent of the four currently scanned scrolls.
At this point, learning the ancient scrolls’ contents is more a “when” than an “if” for researchers. Once that’s done, well, huge sections of the Villa of the Papyri remain unexcavated. And within those ruins? According to experts, potentially thousands more scrolls await eager eyes.