Music and food in the first deciphered passages from the Herculaneum papyri

Feb 07, 2024 649

No longer single letters or words, but entire passages dedicated to music, food and the pleasures of life (probably the work of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus) have been deciphered for the first time from one of the Herculaneum papyri, charred by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The result, which marks a breakthrough in the study of the classical world, was achieved through artificial intelligence by three very young researchers, Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger, winners of the $700,000 prize raffled off by the international Vesuvius Challenge competition.

The initiative had been launched just 10 months ago by Brent Seales, a University of Kentucky computer science professor who has been working for years on using X-ray tomography and artificial intelligence to unlock the secrets of these ancient, damaged documents. Thanks to the support of two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross, a full-fledged competition (in which about 1,500 computer scientists entered) was launched, involving a series of progressive cash awards, up to the top prize of $700,000 for anyone who could decipher four passages of a papyrus of 140 characters each by Dec. 31, 2023.

Outperforming the competition was a team of three very young people: Egyptian doctoral student Youssef Nader, undergraduate student Luke Farritor, an intern at Space X, and Julian Schilliger, a robotics student at ETH Zurich. In addition to hitting the target set by the competition, the three also managed to decipher 11 other columns of text totaling more than 2,000 characters.

"The text we have revealed so far represents only 5 percent of a papyrus," Nat Friedman comments on Platform X. "In 2024, our goal is to go from reading a few passages of text to entire scrolls, and we are announcing a new $100,000 prize for the first team that will be able to read at least 90 percent of all four scrolls we have scanned."

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