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Things where AI is an ally: deciphering damaged ancient texts

At this point, we’ve been reading, and sometimes avoiding due to exhaustion, about the risks of the unraveling of AI in our convoluted times. AI could also assist with tedious, if not unfeasible, research tasks that require, until now, an extensive infrastructure and dedication.

Consider, for example, the charred books of an ancient private library discovered during the eighteenth century in a Roman villa from Herculaneum, the resort town perched over the Bay of Naples and wiped out by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the first century AD. What if the charred scrolls that science cannot unwind due to their fragility could be read by new tools?

Illustration of Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri, a vacation house believed to be owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The charred scrolls found in its library are still undeciphered; it could change in the future; illustration by Rocío Spín Piñar

A student from the Univerity of Nebraska-Lincoln, Luke Farritor, had joined the Vesuvius Challenge, a worldwide competition crowdsourcing the translation of fragments extracted from the Herculaneum charred scrolls. Farritor wrote a program powered by AI that can teach itself to improve its capabilities to read charred Greek letters written on papyrus.

Can we still rediscover ancient books lost to history?

Participants of the Vesuvius Challenge can get prizes for speeding up the techniques that help decipher carbonized scrolls; they’re encouraged to use automated means to accelerate the process, from AI to machine learning and computer vision. Farritor snagged the $40,000 First Letters Award. Two other people were also awarded $10,000 each for independently deciphering the same word and pioneering the techniques used, respectively.

“Will you be the one unlocking the knowledge in hundreds of scrolls—doubling the amount of texts from antiquity—and potentially thousands more that are yet to be excavated, becoming the last hero of the Roman Empire and winning $700,000 while you’re at it?” the Vesuvius Challenge states on its website. 

When Farritor fed a digital image of the destroyed papyrus to his program, it detected about a dozen letters, a first in what could become a promising technique to recover ancient knowledge lost to us —until now. Once papyrologists saw the results, they knew the word: “πορφύραc,” porphyras, an ancient Greek word used to designate the color purple. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrology professor at the University of Naples Federico II, thinks that the word could describe the color of clothes or refer to purple dye, which was very valuable in ancient Rome.

The dream of a computer scientist

With the help of AI, a 21-year-old student could read from a scroll 2,000 years after the books got trapped by the Vesuvius eruption. Brent Seales, a computer science professor from the University of Kentucky and main impulsor of the Vesuvius Challenge to get to read the Herculaneum scrolls, led a team of researchers that, in 2002, developed an X-ray-like computer program capable of see-through unopened documents.

The tool has been successfully used to read passages from unopened Hebrew books, although an improved version could get to read inside of unwinded—and charred—Herculaneum scrolls; the used approach could improve in an accelerated way thanks to artificial intelligence.

Researches predict they’ll read more content within unwrapped ancient Herculaneum scrolls using tomography and advanced artificial intelligence

Unfortunately, the technique used to make ancient papyri has constituted a challenge until now, explains Kyle Melnick in the Washington Post:

“In 2009, Seales visited one of the four European institutions that own the Herculaneum scrolls, the Institut de France, to scan one. But unlike other ancient inks that included metal, the ink on the Herculaneum scrolls was made of charcoal and water, giving it the same density as the papyrus and making it impossible to see via the computer program, Seales said.”

August 24, 79 CE

Few ancient disasters resonate as much as the ones that prevent us from accessing Ancient knowledge stored for hundreds of years in the libraries of Antiquity: the two main destructions of the library of Alexandria, with its wealth of written wisdom burnt to the ground —or the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 CE.

Less than three decades before the Vesuvius eruption buried towns and country villas of Roman families with some of the best private libraries of the time, Julius Caesar forced General Pompey the Great to abandon Rome. On his way to sack him away, Caesar was ambushed by a fleet near the Alexandria harbor along the coast of the wealthy province of Egypt. Caesar decided to burn the boats blocking him, and the flames spread to the city. The library, holding the biggest collection of classical Greek, Egyptian, and Sumerian texts, didn’t survive the fire.

Back in Mount Vesuvius on August 79 CE: Romans enjoying the mild weather and natural beauty of the Bay of Naples had the earthquake destruction of 62 AD fresh in their memory. In less than two decades, the area had returned to its splendor as the main resort for the wealthiest, most cultivated citizens of the Roman Empire, protected by nearby food production, Roman legions, and road and sea connections to Rome and the rest of the Ancient World.

The Vesuvius eruption was different, wiping out the town of Pompeii but also the small and exclusive resort of Herculaneum. Once an unrivaled display of elegant, colonnaded villas perching over the bay, exquisite gardens and libraries holding thousands of scrolls with Roman and Greek books of all ancient knowledge disciplines and arts, Herculaneum ended up buried under sixty-five feet of volcanic debris.

Archeology before archeology

Seventeen centuries later, a few men were digging a well in the area. The Bay of Naples was experiencing a wealth of public works and showed the economic vigor of its strategic location for commerce in the Mediterranean, with Charles VII (King of Naples, before becoming later Charles III of Spain) bringing the ideas of Enlightenment to the region, thanks to pioneers like Neapolitan polymath Giambattista Vico, a big precursor of modernity.

The excavated triclinium, or dining room, of the Villa of the Papyri. The villa was owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. It gets its name from a library found within it that contained 1800 papyrus scrolls, carbonized and preserved by volcanic ash. Herculaneum was destroyed in the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 AD. However, the thick layer of volcanic ash that buried the town preserved buildings, bodies and other artifacts

Naples wasn’t only a net exporter of philosophers, architects, and artists, but the region’s dynamism demanded public works. In this context, the—protected until then—remains of Herculaneum experienced the second tragedy of being discovered by science before the arrival of modern archeological techniques.

First, an Austrian officer decided to take over the remains and ordered the site’s excavation. Then, Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre, a Spanish army officer, insisted on excavating the whole site in the times of Charles VII (the first Bourbon in Naples and Sicily). He started the works in 1738 with little resources nor scientific supervision. Although forgotten to history, De Alcubierre’s insistence on studying the well-preserved houses and quarters of Herculaneum and Pompeii, though flawed from the perspective of today’s standards, was essential to the rise of modern archaeology as a discipline.

Stephen Greenblatt expresses little sympathy for the Spanish army officer, who also excavated Asinio Pollio (Sorrento, Capri, Pozzuoli (which provided the volcanic rock that turned Roman concrete into a material capable of enduring millennia) and Cumae. Greenblatt describes in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (a fascinating book about the modern rediscovery of the ancient masterpiece of atomism De Rerum Natura by Epicurean author Lucretius), the “tragedy” of discovering entire burnt libraries in Herculaneum a bit too early for archaeology to be careful with the findings as follows:

“The official in charge for more than a decade was a Spanish army engineer, Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre, who seemed to treat the site as an ossified garbage dump in which loot had unaccountably been buried. (‘This man,’ remarked a contemporary, dismayed at the wanton damage, ‘knew as much of antiquities as the moon does of lobsters.’) The diggers burrowed away in search of statues, gems, precious marbles, and other more or less familiar treasures, which they found in abundance and delivered in jumbled heaps to their royal masters.”

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Stephen Greenblatt, 2011

A pile of charred logs or the only intact ancient library?

Greenblatt seems to spare the animosity towards the carelessness of the eighteen-century’s excavation and prefers to demonize one single protagonist in that particular moment. That said, the army officer didn’t seem to care much about artifacts such as charred ancient books.

In 1750, under a new director, the explorers became somewhat more careful, explains Greenblatt:

“Three years later, tunneling through the remains of one of the villas, they came across something baffling: the ruins of a room graced with a mosaic floor and filled with innumerable objects’ about half a palm long, and round,’ as one of them wrote, ‘which appeared like roots of wood, all black, and seeming to be only of one piece.'”

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Stephen Greenblatt, 2011

At first, the excavators thought they had found a pile of charcoal briquettes, “some of which they burned to dissipate the early morning chill” (it’s painful to copy this):

“Others thought that the peculiar fragments might have been rolls of burned cloth or fishing nets. Then one of these objects, chancing to fall on the ground, broke open. The unexpected sight of letters inside what had looked like a charred root made the explorers realize what they were looking at: books. They had stumbled on the remains of a private library.”

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Stephen Greenblatt, 2011

And one extraordinarily stocked ancient private library, for that matter, with no doubt belonging to an eminent patrician family. One can only wonder about the content of the library, perhaps containing entire volumes of ancient knowledge lost to modernity due to accidents, religious censorship, or generational fall from grace; books for which Renaissance hunters of lost classic books, like The Swerve’s protagonist Poggio Bracciolini would have traded their lives.

A well-furnished library

Stephen Greenblatt goes on to explain that Romans stocked their libraries with books written on scrolls of papyrus, produced from reeds growing in the marshes of the Nile:

“Wooden sticks, attached to one or both of the ends of the roll and slightly projecting from the top and bottom edges, made it easier to scroll through as one read along: to read a book in the ancient world was to unwind it. The Romans called such a stick umbilicus, and to read a book cover-to-cover was ‘to unroll the umbilicus.'”

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Stephen Greenblatt, 2011

Rolls of papyrus were easy to produce and transport, lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and durable, with one big caveat: “the papyrus would over time gradually get brittle and discolored (…).”

The identified ancient Greek word for “purple” on a Herculaneum scroll

Educated Romans had inherited not only the Greek technique to produce, copy, and preserve books but also custodied thousands of original works written in Greek (the language of knowledge of the time) and Latin. The clumsy eighteenth-century excavators of Herculaneum found in the library other common artifacts in such a place of the time: bookcases and erasable waxed tables on which readers took notes:

“The shelves had been piled with papyrus rolls. Some of the rolls, perhaps the more valuable ones, were wrapped about with tree bark and covered with pieces of wood at each end. In another part of the villa, other rolls, now used into a single mass by the volcanic ash, seemed to have been hastily bundled together in a wooden box, as if someone of the terrible August day had for a brief, wild moment thought to carry some particularly valued books away from the holocaust.”

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Stephen Greenblatt, 2011

Dreaming of important texts

Despite the rather aggressive techniques of the villa’s original excavation, “some eleven hundred books were eventually recovered.” Some of them had been crushed by debris and mud, and all suffered carbonization by the advance of lava. But this carbonization somewhat locked them from further decay, and today, they are known as the scrolls of the Villa of the Papyri, or Herculaneum papyri.

As the only ancient library known in its entirety, the scrolls of the Villa of the Papyri have enchanted generations of scholars and enthusiasts of Antiquity, offering a glimpse of what their mainly Greek philosophical texts may contain (perhaps entire works lost to humanity by giants such as Aristotle? Fine fiction books, like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, entertain the fascination and revolution of rediscovering, say, Aristotle’s book On Comedy).

Some charred scrolls were lost early on as the discoverers tried to unwind them to read the content. Dozens of books have been damaged in such attempts. Father Antonio Piaggio came up with a less destructive method for, at least, reading the superficial content: if the outer charred layer was carefully scrapped, the material on the outside could be read.

From then on, an entire discipline was born to try to discern the books’ content, if only a few letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and text fragments. The works discovered belong to minor Greek philosophers like Philodemus, but things could change quickly with the aid of modern imagery and AI tools.

Having Philodemus in your library can say a lot about you. Was the owner, which could have been Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, mainly interested in works considered necessary at the time, or he had aimed at creating a repository of ancient wisdom rivaling legendary private libraries lost to time, like the one owned by Epicurus?

It’s believed that the Greek philosopher wrote more than 300 works, most of them lost to history. Are his works, and most of the important Greek tragedies, as well as works and commentaries by Aristotle or Plato, lost forever, however? Perhaps we’ll read more and more content from the Villa of the Papyri.

What are the odds of discovering a text as important as Lucretius De Rerum Natura?