In an outstanding achievement, the Vesuvius Challenge 2023 Grand Prize was awarded to a team for their success in deciphering 2000-year-old scrolls from Herculaneum, previously unreadable due to damage from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. Leveraging advanced high-resolution CT scans, machine learning, and computer vision techniques, this breakthrough reveals fascinating insights into ancient music, food, and life’s pleasures.

Discovered in the 18th century, these scrolls have been housed in Naples, Italy, inaccessible due to their delicate, carbonised state. On March 15th, 2023, a challenge was set forth by Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales to harness the power of machine learning and advanced imaging techniques to virtually unroll and read these precious artefacts. High-resolution CT scans were conducted at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford, and the community responded, bringing together a concerted effort that combined competition with collaboration.

In less than a year, the Challenge has borne fruit; 275 years after their discovery, we have succeeded in reading portions of the scrolls. This first unrolled scroll delves into the Epicurean philosophy of pleasure, a text with no known duplicates, providing fresh insight into ancient thought:

“…]ι̣μ̣εν τοὺϲ̣ [πα]ρ̣[ὰ Ξ]ε̣- νοφάντωι το̣ιούτου[ϲ, ὃ καὶ ὑπ’ ἄ̣λλων δοκεῖ γείνεϲθαι, παραπλη- ϲίωϲ δ̣’ ο̣ὐδὲ παρ̣’ ἑτέρωι ἴδι̣ον το̣ῦ δ̣οκοῦ̣ντοϲ̣ εἶναι καὶ παρὰ πλε̣ί- οϲ̣ι̣ν̣ ἥδιο̣ν, ἀλλ’ ὡ̣ϲ̣ καὶ ἐ̣π̣ὶ τῶν βρω̣μ̣άτ̣ων ο̣ὐ̣κ ἤδ̣η τὰ ϲπάνια πάντωϲ̣ καὶ ἡδ̣ίω τῶν δ̣αψιλῶν̣ ε̣ἶναι̣…”

This passage, when translated, provides a glimpse into their discourse on pleasure:

“…we do not immediately consider scarce [foods] to be more pleasant than those which are abundant…”

This statement, part of a larger philosophical treatise, challenges the notion that rarity enhances pleasure, a reflection that aligns with Epicurean beliefs.

The technical process involved the reproduction of winning submissions, ensuring the authenticity of the findings. The ink detection models used in the project were based on detecting ink spots within the CT scan data rather than recognising characters or text, significantly reducing the likelihood of misinterpretation or “hallucination” by the machine learning models.

Looking ahead, there is anticipation for further discoveries, including texts from other esteemed ancient authors, as the techniques perfected through the Vesuvius Challenge are applied more broadly.

An event to commemorate this achievement is scheduled for March 16th at the Getty Villa Museum in Los Angeles, promising to offer more details on the scrolls and the implications of their messages.

The team here at Family History Zone extends our heartfelt congratulations to the winners of the Vesuvius Challenge 2023 Grand Prize for their extraordinary achievement in bringing to light the wisdom of the ancient world through the Herculaneum Papyri.

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  • Herculaneum Scrolls: Vesuvius Challenge