21-Year-Old Student Wins 40k Using AI to Read 2,000-Year-Old Papyrus Scroll 


It seems like AI is everywhere these days, but once in a while, it does something truly remarkable. In this case, thanks to guidance from Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old student, it’s been able to help “read” the first word in a papyrus scroll more than 2,000 years old. Let’s explore how this happened and why those scrolls were so hard to read in the first place.

A Really Bad Place to Put a City

Source: ZoomViewer

These scrolls are located in a pretty unique place. They were found encased in ash in an ancient city called Herculaneum. Why’s Herculaneum covered in ash?

Mount Vesuvius

Source: Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

This is Mount Vesuvius. In 79 AD, it erupted and covered Herculaneum and its neighboring town, Pompeii, in volcanic ash. The eruption was so swift that some people were caught in the middle of doing things when the molten lava swallowed them up.

These Scrolls are Impossible to Read Normally

Source: EduceLab

Most people think of papyrus scrolls like the ones that Ancient Egypt had. While these scrolls are made of the same material, they’ve been through some pretty rough times, being covered in ash for centuries.

Encased In Ash


See Whats Inside

After they were encased in ash, they were left out in the elements for over 1,700 years. Now, the only way to get a glimpse of what’s written inside them is to scan them with X-rays and try to decipher what’s written in there.

Source: Henrik Knudsen

Diamond Light

Diamond Light Source is one of the world’s most powerful and exacting X-ray facilities. Here, in a ring spanning some 1,650 feet (500 meters), are the fragments of the Herculaneum papyri. They scan the recorded works and try to decipher what the letters are from the paper behind them.

Source: Vesuvus Challenge/University of Kentucky

X-rays and CT scanning are used to figure out what the words are because no one can even touch these scrolls. They are so fragile that pressing too hard on them will immediately turn them into dust.

The Vesuvius Challenge And Reading the First Word

After scientists had figured out that they could virtually unwrap these papyrus scrolls using X-rays, the next step was to read what was written on those scrolls. They created the Vesuvius Challenge for this purpose.

Source:Digital Restoration Initiative/University of Kentucky

The first part of the challenge was to decipher ten letters in a 4-square-centimeter (2/3rds of a square inch) of parchment. That’s the test that Luke achieved with a bit of smart AI technology.

First, But Only By A Bit

In the science world, when you find something, it is as important as what you find. In Luke’s case, he submitted his findings just before another researcher, Youssef Nader, a Free University of Berlin student, presented the same results, confirming Luke’s discovery.

Source: Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford

Huge Collaboration

While Luke earned the respect for spotting and submitting the letters and the first word, it’s not a one-person job. Around 1,500 teams have been collaborating on solving this problem through Discord, the chat client. Each team makes its findings available to other groups.


Youssef’s search pattern recognition has gone even further since Luke’s findings. His algorithm has uncovered an additional four columns of text with margins, although not all the letters are legible in them.

How Much Did He Win?

Luke copped a prize of $40,000 for being the first one to report ten letters (including the first word) in the Herculaneum papyrus. However, that’s just the start of the prize pool.


The Vesuvius Challenge

Nader also took home a $10,000 prize. The Vesuvius Challenge has over a million dollars in prizes to hand out to people who take an interest in solving one of the most enduring mysteries of the last two millennia.

Source: Photo by Antonio Masiello

Many more teams are following in these two pioneers’ footsteps, and it may not be too long before we can actually read a complete panel of text in these ancient scrolls.

What Was the Word?

The letters were all Greek, spelling out the word “porphyras,” which translates to “purple” in English.

Source: Zoomviewer

The Villas

This is huge since we know that only nobles and royals were allowed to wear purple clothes (or could even afford them since purple dye was so expensive). It adds to the suspicion about whose villa these scrolls were discovered in.

Source: Erik Anderson

Whose Villa Do We Think It Was?

This is speculation, but scholars think that the villa that these scrolls were found in belonged to the father-in-law of one Julius Caesar.

Source: iStock

Yup, that Julius Caesar. The former emperor of Rome used to visit the villa, and the library of works inside seems to support this narrative.

The Importance Of This Find

It might seem a bit strange for scholars and scientists to get excited over the discovery of ancient writings, but it’s understandable in the context. Some of these works have been lost for centuries.

Source: Fine Art Images

Scrolls were particularly fragile and susceptible to fire. And the ancient world had its fair share of library burnings. These facts led to many books, scrolls, and writings being erased from the human record permanently. Some of those lost copies may be in these scrolls.

The Future Of The Scrolls

What do these scrolls contain? What secrets do they have? Will they help us understand how people lived in this time? Their fears, their worries, and their desires? Or will these scrolls offer insight into how they thought?

Source: Shutterstock / Photo Contributor javarman

As fragile as these scrolls are, they are also a marvel of communication. Through thousands of years, people long dead can still communicate with us. While it is possible, it’s unlikely that millennia from now, people will be reading our X posts to figure out the details of our society.

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Charlotte Clad

Written by Charlotte Clad

Charlotte Clad is a brilliant writer who possesses the remarkable ability to craft content that goes viral and leaves an indelible mark on readers. With an innate passion for storytelling and an unwavering commitment to her craft, Charlotte has consistently pushed the boundaries of creativity to captivate audiences worldwide.

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