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posted by hubie on Saturday February 24, @06:19AM   Printer-friendly

AI will let us read 'lost' ancient works in the library at Herculaneum for the first time:

On 19 October 1752, a discovery was made 20 meters underneath the town of Resina, near Naples in Italy. Peasants digging wells in the area around Mount Vesuvius had struck marble statuary and mosaic pavements—and they also found lumps of carbon.

Initially, they were tossed aside—the lumps weren't considered valuable or pretty, so were of no interest. But thankfully, someone noticed they were all about the same size and shape, and investigated further. It was soon discovered the carbonized lumps they thought were rolled-up hunting or fishing nets, or bolts of cloth, in fact contained writing.

What these peasants had found turned out to be a huge building from the ancient Roman age, when the town was known as Herculaneum. Recent re-excavations suggest that nearly three square kilometers of it have never been explored. The carbonized lumps turned out to be papyrus scrolls belonging to a great library full of Roman writing that had been thought lost. For this reason, the building is now known as the Villa dei Papiri.

[...] This meant the scrolls were fused solid and to get at the writing inside, they had to be opened. This process has been ongoing since the 1750s and researchers have just entered a new stage, thanks to AI. The lumps of carbonized scroll have been digitally scanned and, using 3D mapping and AI, researchers have been unable to "virtually unroll" the papyri and detect letters. This process has, for example, allowed them to read a previously unknown philosophical work discussing the senses and pleasure by the Epicurean philosopher and poet, Philodemus.

[...] In 1753, Italian priest and scholar Antonio Piaggio, on loan from the Vatican library, invented a machine to unroll the papyri by slowly pulling the outer layer off. Hundreds of Herculaneum papyri were thus unrolled, though their harder outer bits were cut off to get at the better-preserved insides. Piaggio's machine was remarkably successful, and the papyri unrolled on it have fueled two-and-a-half centuries of scholarship so far.

But not every scroll could be unrolled this way—and up to 300 of these still rolled-up scrolls, out of the 800 or so found originally, have been set aside until now.

The Herculaneum library contains mostly works of Epicurean philosophy. This is a strand of philosophy founded around 307BC, based on the teachings of Epicurus—an ancient Greek philosopher who believed that a correct understanding of physics, backed up by rigorous argument, was necessary to achieve happiness, because it removed human fears about the gods (they don't care about us), natural phenomena (not signs of divine anger), and post-mortem punishment (our souls do not survive our deaths).

Philodemus of Gadara is the most common author in the library. One copy of his History of Plato's Academy was probably his own draft, so we can be confident the library is made up in part from his books. This is also why we think the owner of the villa was Julius Caesar's father-in-law, L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus: we know Philodemus was his personal philosopher, and only the highest Roman elite could afford a house that big.

Epicurus makes up a substantial proportion of the library too—especially On Nature, his magnum opus. Other Epicureans have been textually resurrected as well, including Metrodorus and Demetrius the Spartan.

There are also works by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, as well as papyri in Latin. Most legible of these is a poem about the Battle of Actium: the battle on September 2, 31 BC, in which Octavian defeated Mark Antony. Seneca the Elder's Histories have also recently been identified.

[...] The safest bet for what we will read now with the aid of AI in Herculaneum is more of what we already have. There will be more Philodemus and, as a scholar of his work, I am over the moon about this. Every new text is important—making our knowledge deeper, more textured and more accurate. I cannot really bring myself to hope for one specific text or another. As Epicurus himself put it, "One should not have vain desires that cannot be fulfilled."

Previously: Trio Wins $700K Vesuvius Challenge Grand Prize for Deciphering Ancient Scroll

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Trio Wins $700K Vesuvius Challenge Grand Prize for Deciphering Ancient Scroll 4 comments

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.

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  • (Score: 4, Funny) by driverless on Saturday February 24, @12:06PM (3 children)

    by driverless (4770) on Saturday February 24, @12:06PM (#1346058)

    ... if that fails, different AI will hallucinate the contents for us. Get ready for the steamy tales of Agrippina the Younger seducing Napoleon Bonaparte in exchange for the crown of the Two Sicilies.

    • (Score: 4, Funny) by janrinok on Saturday February 24, @12:53PM

      by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Saturday February 24, @12:53PM (#1346061) Journal

      I would like to participate in your reading group. Do you have a website?

    • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Saturday February 24, @05:54PM

      by Thexalon (636) on Saturday February 24, @05:54PM (#1346096)

      That's not half as raunchy as the stuff we actually have from ancient Rome. Turns out that scrawlings on bathroom walls [] haven't changed much in 2000 years.

      The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
    • (Score: 2) by captain normal on Saturday February 24, @06:58PM

      by captain normal (2205) on Saturday February 24, @06:58PM (#1346101)

      That is quite the fantasy as they lived over 1,750 years apart.

      When life isn't going right, go left.
  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by SomeGuy on Saturday February 24, @02:38PM (3 children)

    by SomeGuy (5632) on Saturday February 24, @02:38PM (#1346077)

    Never mind all the work that PEOPLE went to, recovering and imaging these things. It is all about the magical AI.

    Let's just get rid of people and throw AI at everything since it can do it all.

    • (Score: 2) by mcgrew on Sunday February 25, @06:33PM

      by mcgrew (701) <> on Sunday February 25, @06:33PM (#1346215) Homepage Journal

      Guess where AI came from?

    • (Score: 2) by corey on Monday February 26, @11:11AM (1 child)

      by corey (2202) on Monday February 26, @11:11AM (#1346292)

      Yeah. One AI story after the next. These researchers get coverage and news sites get clicks by using the buzzword. What’s actually interesting is the contents of the scrolls.

      • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Monday February 26, @02:54PM

        by Freeman (732) on Monday February 26, @02:54PM (#1346314) Journal

        What's actually interesting is the process they used to read the scrolls. In all likelihood most of the scrolls won't say much of use or interest.

        Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"