Researchers virtually unroll and decipher ancient Roman scrolls through revolutionary technology

Researchers have achieved a groundbreaking archaeological feat by digitally unrolling and interpreting ancient Roman scrolls from the buried villa in Herculaneum, employing X-ray technology and AI.

Closeup of old scrolls and blue ink in the inkwell

Researchers have made a groundbreaking archaeological advancement by virtually unrolling and deciphering ancient Roman scrolls from the villa in Herculaneum using cutting-edge technology such as X-rays and AI.

The villa in Herculaneum was buried under volcanic ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, preserving hundreds of carbonized papyrus scrolls. Previous attempts to physically unroll the scrolls resulted in their disintegration, making it impossible to read their contents. However, recent advancements in technology and imaging techniques have made it possible to digitally unroll and examine the text on these ancient scrolls.

The breakthrough came through the Vesuvius Challenge, a prize challenge that brought together researchers, tech founders, and academics. The challenge involved using AI and image analysis to identify and interpret the text on the scrolls. More than 1,200 teams participated in the challenge, competing in various tasks to improve the tools for ink detection and image segmentation.

By analysing X-ray images of the charred layers of the scrolls, researchers identified a characteristic ‘crackle pattern’ that indicated the presence of ink. Utilising this information, researchers successfully developed machine-learning models to identify and uncover legible words and letters on the scrolls. The first word found on Banana Boy was ‘porphyras,’ meaning ‘purple’ in ancient Greek.

This development has immense potential to significantly expand our understanding of Greek and Roman literature. Believed to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, the villa in Herculaneum’s well-stocked library could unveil new works of philosophy, forgotten plays, or even lost Homeric poems.

Source: The Economist