When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it covered Pompeii and surrounding Roman towns with a catastrophic layer of volcanic ash. One small settlement buried in the aftermath was Herculaneum, which housed a luxurious villa with an extensive library of papyrus scrolls. A farmer discovered some 1,800 texts carbonized in the home in the 18th century, all of which were well-preserved and incredibly fragile to the point of being impossible to unroll and read.
These scrolls are now the subject of the monumental Vesuvius Challenge, an ongoing competition to use machine learning and computer imaging technologies to read the ancient texts. Scientists have discovered a way to digitally unroll the scrolls using X-ray tomography and ink detection, producing a viewable 3D scan that reveals the writing without damaging the physical object. The competition, in turn, will award $700,000 to anyone who can discern a substantial portion of the text, at least four passages each with more than 140 characters.
With 79 days to go, this part of the competition is still ongoing, although a 21-year-old college student has already deciphered one word. Luke Farritor “became the first person in two millennia to see an entire word from within an unopened scroll this August,” the challenge says, and that word is porphyras, which translates to “purple.” This color is incredibly rare in texts from antiquity, making it an even more exciting finding and boosting intrigue about the rest of the scroll.
It’s worth checking out the Vesuvius Challenge website to learn more about the entire process behind the discovery and for the ambitious, to find out how to join in.
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