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A team of students deciphered a 2000-year-old papyrus scroll, with some help from AI

LUKE FARRITOR: (Reading) They have nothing to say about pleasure, either in general or in the particular, when it is a question of definition.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

That's Luke Farritor, one of three students who won a competition to decode a 2,000-year-old papyrus scroll from the ancient city of Herculaneum. It's part of a philosophical treatise about the nature of pleasure, or maybe more of an ancient blog post where the writer's trying to take down a group of other writers. Sound familiar?

FARRITOR: (Reading) We do not refrain from questioning some things, but understanding and remembering others. And may it be evident to us to say true things, as they might have often appeared evident.

SIMON: The scroll was one of hundreds carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year AD 79. When archaeologists found them in the 18th century, the scrolls crumbled when they were unrolled. Recently, researchers learned how to peek inside the scrolls without destroying them. University of Kentucky professor Brent Seales co-founded the competition, the Vesuvius Challenge, and he joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRENT SEALES: Thanks so much, Scott.

SIMON: What did you have to do to read the text?

SEALES: Well, we've been working on virtual unwrapping for a couple of decades now, and in 2015, we had a breakthrough where we were able to read a scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, actually from Ein Gedi, and it showed the power of virtual unwrapping. But Herculaneum has proven to be, you know, iconically beyond reach. Not only were those scrolls difficult to apply virtual unwrapping to, but the ink from the ancient world did not readily show up in the scans that we made, and we needed an AI-based approach to be able to see that ink.

SIMON: I don't understand virtual unwrapping.

SEALES: Virtual wrapping is actually a way that we can see the inside of something as detailed as a manuscript or a book, without having to actually open it. It's based on tomography and X-ray, and it's proven pretty successful in the past. But Herculaneum, you know, these scrolls are iconically damaged, and it was unknown if we could see anything from the inside because what you've got is carbon-black ink written on basically vegetable material, which is papyrus. And then it's basically burned to a rigid crisp. When you look at the material, you realize what a miracle it is that we can actually see anything inside.

SIMON: And what role did artificial intelligence play?

SEALES: Well, the ink isn't obviously visible in the way that we're doing the scanning. In fact, I don't know of another method that would make the ink directly visible. So what the artificial intelligence, the machine learning, is allowing us to do is take the evidence of the ink that actually is there and amplify it so that to the human eye we can clearly read the ink.

SIMON: And, I mean, what do we know - what's on the scroll so far?

SEALES: Well, the scrolls written in Greek, and we've been able to unwrap the top of about 12 columns. That's a little bit like taking, you know, the top half of a novel and then expecting you to be able to read a coherent story, right? So every page, you get halfway through, and then you lose the story. But it looks to be a philosophical work from probably Philodemus, or at least the Epicureans, about pleasure and the importance of enjoying life.

SIMON: What do you think can potentially be unlocked with some of the technology with which you're working?

SEALES: Well, first of all, this corpus from Herculaneum represents not an unlimited number of works from the ancient world, but, you know, maybe 3 or 400 new volumes. That's unprecedented. We haven't had that number of books, of volumes, from the ancient world, from antiquity, since maybe 1300 or 1400, since the Renaissance. So we're talking about a 7 or 800-year high in doing just the Herculaneum corpus.

SIMON: And we should note, Professor Seales - I mean, you're a professor of computer science, and the students who won study computer science and robotics. You're not archaeologists, are you?

SEALES: No, we're not. And we're not classicists. I mean, I think that's just wonderful, though, because it's a collaborative effort. I mean, some of the best advances being made now in our modern world are things that are collaborative and that are across these various disciplines.

SIMON: Brent Seales, professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky and co-founder of the Vesuvius Challenge. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

SEALES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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