A crowdsourcing competition has led to a breakthrough in deciphering fragile, charred ancient Roman scrolls found in the ruins of a luxury villa in Herculaneum. The Vesuvius Challenge, launched in 2023 by tech entrepreneurs and a scientist, offered over $700,000 in prizes for using machine learning to digitally unroll the scrolls, revealing the hidden text within.
The scrolls were excavated starting in the 1700s from a villa believed to have belonged to an Epicurean philosopher named Philodemus. Over 600 papyrus scrolls were found, but attempts to physically unroll them resulted in the scrolls crumbling to dust. Scientist Brent Searles scanned four scrolls in hopes of digitally reading them.
In October 2023, college student and SpaceX intern Luke Farritor became the first to extract meaningful Greek text from the scans, winning $40,000. Teaming up with Yousef Nader and Julian Schilliger, their entry went on to win the $700,000 grand prize for deciphering 15 columns of text.
The revealed passages discuss pleasure and criticize ideological opponents, believed to be the Stoic philosophers. Additional contestants won prizes for innovations in techniques like segmentation and ink labeling.
The competition organizers see this crowdsourcing approach as validation of the concept. By automating these techniques, they hope to eventually read all 800+ extant scrolls and any still buried in unexcavated villa levels, with the potential to greatly expand knowledge of classical philosophy and literature.
The Vesuvius Challenge continues in 2024 with new prizes offered toward that ultimate goal. As one historian described it, reading these lost ancient libraries could transform classical scholarship on the scale not seen since the Renaissance.