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HomeAfricaPapyrus that was charred by a volcanic eruption can be read again...

Papyrus that was charred by a volcanic eruption can be read again thanks to X-rays and artificial intelligence

A team of three students has managed to read a 2,000-year-old charred papyrus scroll, with the help of X-rays and artificial intelligence. It concerns a manuscript from the Roman city of Herculaneum, which was buried under ash due to the eruption of Volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Excavations were carried out here in 1750 A library containing 1,800 papyrus manuscripts is found. They were in poor condition and attempts to open them sometimes led to the destruction of the materials. However, Youssef Nader (Egypt), Luc Varietor (USA), and Julian Schilliger (Switzerland) were able to make fifteen columns of Greek text readable without having to open the papyrus. They will receive a prize of $700,000 for this purpose. More than 650 thousand euros.

The text that revealed the three is most likely by the philosopher Philodemus Gadari, who lived in Herculaneum in the first century BC. His library is said to be kept in the building now called the “Villa of Papyrus.” Philodemus was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), who was often concerned with ethics. According to Epicurus, personal happiness was the highest thing a human being could achieve.

Text created from burnt scrolls.
Vesuvius image challenge

The fifteen columns that are now read fit perfectly with this philosophical movement. The author thinks about goods that can give a person pleasure. Does it matter the degree of pleasure whether those goods are rare or abundant? “In the case of food, we don’t think that scarce elements are tastier than those that are abundant,” he concludes.

Other passages discuss music, a subject Philodemus is known to have written about. According to Richard Yanko, a professor of classical languages ​​at the University of Michigan involved in the project, it is “most likely” that the unknown passage now decoded belongs to this work. “We will soon be able to read the title once more text appears. There are still a lot of questions: I can’t wait!

MrRichard Janko There are still so many questions: I can’t wait!

The race to make the scroll readable was called the 2023 Vesuvius Challenge, and it wasn’t done in the usual academic way. Nat Friedman, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was fascinated by the Herculaneum Scrolls and offered a cash reward to those who managed to uncover their secrets. The necessary software was made available to the general public, so that everyone could participate. The online fundraising eventually led to a slew of prizes. The money needed to discover the first word ($40,000 and $20,000, respectively) was paid in October 2023, when Variator and Nader succeeded in quick succession. To make the word “purple” visible – This is the achievement that they are now building on.

Dutchman Jan-Paul Bosma, who previously had a startup in Silicon Valley, is the leader of the Vesuvius Challenge project. He is pleased. “This is indescribable. We also did not expect it to be successful within a year. With a budget of less than 1.5 million. This is of course nothing for a project like this.

Bosma says the second phase of the project has now begun. “We have now read about 5 percent of one papyrus scroll, but we have scanned four so far. The goal for 2024 is to read 90 percent of the four scrolls.