College Student Uses AI to Read Nearly 2,000 Year-Old Scroll

October 19, 2023
Charred 1,700 year-old scroll being surveyed

I saw these letters, and I just completely freaked out. I freaked out, almost fell over, almost cried.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, Luke Farritor, reflecting on what it felt like as the first person in nearly 2,000 years to read a word from an ancient scroll. The scroll, part of a larger collection discovered in the 1750s, has puzzled experts for centuries.

Why It Matters: Farritor, 21, used artificial intelligence to begin deciphering a scroll charred by the Mount Vesuvius volcano eruption in A.D. 79. Using technology he developed on his own, Farritor detected letters spelling out the word “purple” in ancient Greek. His work is part of the larger Vesuvius Challenge, which awards money to people who can decipher the ancient scrolls. Resembling burned logs, experts suspect the scrolls belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, who had a substantial library. The noteworthy papyri did not decay due to being entombed by volcanic materials that eventually “carbonized and preserved.”

Further Context: Farritor and others participating in the challenge will continue working on deciphering the scrolls using AI. Considering the impact this work could have, Robert Fowler, a papyrus and classicist expert at the University of Bristol in England, states, “Recovering such a library would transform our knowledge of the ancient world in ways we can hardly imagine. The impact could be as great as the rediscovery of manuscripts during the Renaissance.”

Read More:

Scrolls were illegible for 2,000 years. A college student read one with AI (The Washington Post)

Scrolls That Survived Vesuvius Divulge Their First Word (The New York Times)

by Emily Hooker, based in Texas