from the who-reads-those-anyway dept.
Last fall we reported on the use of machine learning to decipher the first letters from a previously unreadable ancient scroll found in an ancient Roman villa at Herculaneum—part of the 2023 Vesuvius Challenge. Tech entrepreneur and challenge co-founder Nat Friedman has now announced via X (formerly Twitter) that they have awarded the grand prize of $700,000 for producing the first readable text. The three winning team members are Luke Farritor, Yousef Nader, and Julian Schilliger.
As previously reported, the ancient Roman resort town Pompeii wasn't the only city destroyed in the catastrophic 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Several other cities in the area, including the wealthy enclave of Herculaneum, were fried by clouds of hot gas called pyroclastic pulses and flows.
[...] Brent Searles' lab at the University of Kentucky has been working on deciphering the Herculaneum scrolls for many years. He employs a different method of "virtually unrolling" damaged scrolls, which he used in 2016 to "open" a scroll found on the western shore of the Dead Sea, revealing the first few verses from the book of Leviticus. The team's approach combined digital scanning with micro-computed tomography—a noninvasive technique often used for cancer imaging—with segmentation to digitally create pages, augmented with texturing and flattening techniques. Then they developed software (Volume Cartography) to unroll the scroll virtually.
[...] In October, Farritor, a college student and SpaceX intern, successfully read the first text hidden within one of the rolled-up scrolls using a machine-learning model. The achievement snagged him $40,000. Nader, an Egyptian bio-robotics student in Berlin, received a smaller $10,000 First Ink prize for essentially being the second person to decipher letters in a scroll. Schilliger, a Swiss robotics student at ETH Zurich, won three Segmentation Tooling prizes, which enabled 3D mapping of the papyrus.
Schilliger, Farritor, and Nader then formed a "superteam" to create the winning entry, extracting 15 columns of text from inside the carbonized scroll. In addition, there was a three-way tie for runner-up, with each entry winning $50,000 for devising new approaches to the subtleties of ink labeling and sampling: Shao-Qian Mah; Louis Schlessinger and Arefeh Sherafati; and Elian Rafael Dal Prá, Sean Johnson, Leonardo Scabini, Raí Fernando Dal Prá, João Vitor Brentigani Torezan, Daniel Baldin Franceschini, Bruno Pereira Kellm, Marcelo Soccol Gris, and Odemir Martinez Bruno.
[...] The Vesuvius Challenge co-founders thought when they started the challenge that there was less than a 30 percent chance of success within the year, since, at the time, no one had been able to read actual letters inside of a scroll. However, the crowdsourcing approach proved wildly successful. It's still just 5 percent of a single scroll, so Friedman, Searles, and Gross have announced a new challenge for 2024: $100,000 for the first entry that can read 90 percent of the four scrolls scanned thus far.
[...] "We have not yet found the villa's main library, which would have contained a much wider range of Greek and Latin literature," historian Garrett Ryan wrote on the Vesuvius Challenge site. "That library, with its thousands or even tens of thousands of scrolls, must still be buried. If those texts are discovered, and if even a small fraction can still be read, they will transform our knowledge of classical life and literature on a scale not seen since the Renaissance."
Previously on SoylentNews:
- Ultra Fragile Scrolls Buried by Vesuvius to be Virtually Unrolled - 20191006
- 'Raiders of Found Ark' Decipher Ancient Biblical Scroll, Without Unrolling It - 20160922
- 3D Scanning Deciphers Ancient Hebrew Scroll - 20150722
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Ein Gedi is an oasis located on the western shore of the Dead Sea, where fresh water flows from underground year-round. Over the millennia, it has been home to various human settlements, including a Jewish village with a synagogue erected in the third century.
One of the additions to the synagogue, made in the fourth century, was a niche in the northern wall, which housed an ark, a receptacle to contain the synagogue's scrolls of Torah. The Torah is comprised of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy -- the first five books of the Bible.
An archaeological expedition to the Ein Gedi synagogue uncovered the ancient scroll in 1970 -- the oldest scroll discovered since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found between 1946 and 1956. The Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from between around 408 BC to 308 AD, however, were in good condition.
The Ein Gedi scroll -- carbon dated to the sixth century -- was not. It was burned and blackened into charcoal -- unable to be unrolled and deciphered.
"This discovery absolutely astonished us: We were certain it was just a shot in the dark but decided to try and scan the burnt scroll anyway," curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls projects Pnina Shor said. "Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year old synagogue!"
In the 1970s, some charred fragments of ancient scrolls were discovered inside the ark of a synagogue at En-Gedi, on the western shore of the Dead Sea. The archaeologists could not unroll them without destroying them, and it was doubtful any text would be legible. So they preserved the fragments in hope that one day better technology might come along.
That day is finally here, as computer scientists at the University of Kentucky have developed a technique to read them. Recently, we've seen news about being able to read closed books, but in the past couple years technology has revolutionized the field of classical studies by allowing "virtual unrolling" of ancient scrolls. The combination of a micro-CT scan and specialized software was developed as part of a project to allow scholars to read the scrolls from Herculaneum, an ancient town near Pompeii which was also destroyed in the volcanic eruption. The so-called "Villa of the Papyri" contains the only intact ancient library ever discovered and has so far yielded nearly 2000 ancient scrolls, mostly obscure and lost works associated with Epicurean philosophical ideas. (Excavation at Herculaneum is not currently active, but many scholars speculate there could be additional chambers in the villa, possibly with thousands of other lost ancient works.)
The most recent accomplishment with this technique is the reading of a biblical fragment from the En-Gedi synagogue. As Yosef Porath, a researcher involved in the original archaeological dig nearly a half-century ago, was preparing a final report on the charred scroll fragments, he asked Pnina Shor (the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls project at the Israel Antiquities Authority) to try making some high-resolution scans. Dr. Shor was skeptical, given the poor condition of the fragments (which looked like chunks of charcoal), but she included one fragment on a whim along with other objects she was submitting for cross-sectional scanning. She forwarded the results to W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky who has been working on the "virtual unrolling" software.
The results were striking. Not only did they obtain a clear and legible text, but it was also found to be the earliest extant fragment of the Hebrew Bible with an identical text to the medieval Masoretic Text used as the standard Hebrew edition today. The Masoretic text serves as the basis for most modern translations, and this recent find demonstrates a possible continuous stable text going back as much as 1700-2000 years. According to the researchers, it is also the first ancient biblical fragment recovered from the ark of a synagogue (as opposed to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were preserved in desert caves.)
Links to published studies:
Article on Technical Methodology and Findings
Article on Recovered Hebrew Text and Historical Significance
Researchers in Oxfordshire are working to 'virtually unroll' several scrolls from the library of Herculaneum.
The scrolls were buried by Mt. Vesuvius which erupted in 79AD and are far to fragile to unroll physically (it has been tried with a few scrolls from this library with "largely disastrous results")
Unlike other ancient scrolls, these have resisted previous efforts to scan and read them due to their use of carbon based ink.
Unlike metal-based inks, such as the iron gall used to write medieval documents, carbon ink has a density similar to that of the carbonized papyrus on which it sits. Therefore, it appears invisible in X-ray scans.
The scrolls will be scanned at the U.K.'s Diamond Light Source synchrotron science facility at photon energies of 53-150keV.
The researchers believe that the tomography will "capture subtle, non-density-based evidence of ink, even when it is invisible to the naked eye in the scan data."
The machine-learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it pixel-by-pixel from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is, voxel-by-voxel, in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragments. The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader.
The opened fragments that will be used to train the tool are the remains from scrolls sacrificed in earlier physical attempts at unrolling.