The fragile scrolls of the Herculaneum papyri are an inestimable cultural heritage: over the years it has been impossible to read them in their entirety and even opening them has been a problem.
Today, scientists plan to use AI and machine learning to read the Herculaneum papyri without opening them.
The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD devastated the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum: everything was buried by a deluge of ash and lapilli.
Everything, including a very precious library full of papyri, was marred by the hell that broke loose.
The papyri of Herculaneum? rise
The Guardian newspaper today he writes that a combination of artificial intelligence and advanced x-rays will make the contents of these charred Herculaneum papyri readable.
“Although it is possible to note that there is writing on every roll of the Herculaneum papyri, opening it would require the papyrus to have its own flexibility. And there is no more flexibility, " says the professor Brant Sales, head of research and the computer department at the University of Kentucky.
The two papyrus scrolls that Seales and his team will use for their project belong to the Institut de France in Paris.
The papyri of Herculaneum
In 1752 an extraordinary collection of about 1800 charred scrolls was found in Herculaneum, a coastal town west of Vesuvius and less than 10 minutes from Pompeii.
In terms of historical importance, the one that incorporates the Herculaneum papyri is the only library that has survived intact from antiquity. Most of the papyri are kept in Naples, my city, in the National Archaeological Museum.
According to the opinion of some archaeologists, the structure where the discovery took place (called for this "Villa of the Papyri") belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
The Herculaneum papyri: a prohibitive enterprise
Attempting to date and decrypt the documents proved extremely difficult. When opened, the papyri shatter and the ink on them (a layer of a tenth of a millimeter) dissolves virtually instantly.
The superimposition of the charred layers in the scrolls of the Herculaneum papyri makes them practically impossible to read. Of the 1800 found, operations were carried out on 500 of them (and only 200 were completely unrolled), allowing the reading of only 150 fragments.
Here's how we will read them
Brant Seales and his team have developed an innovative method that no longer risks destroying the Herculaneum papyri. In previous tests this method (which combines AI and X-rays as mentioned) has “virtually unrolled” a scroll of parchment found in a synagogue of En-Gedi in Israel, and which is 1700 years old. It contained fragments from Leviticus, the third book of the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Torah.
Unlike the En-Gedi parchment, however, many of the Herculaneum papyri were not written with metal-based inks.
For this reason, practically no contrast appears in normal X-rays between the carbon used for writing and the papyrus base. This is effectively reduced by the fire of the eruption to another piece of coal.
And this is where the advanced synchrotron located in the UK. A machine capable of projecting a brighter light than the sun.
The device uses electrons to produce really, really bright light. It is used to research everything. And when I say everything I mean from fossils to airplane engines, passing through viruses and vaccines.
Seales thinks the tool, called the Diamond Light Source, will provide key information on the Herculaneum papyri. How to read what the synchrotron will allow to see? The research team will use machine learning to join, fix, decipher the fragments of writing that alternate on the various overlapping layers of the papyri.
It's like reading a book without opening it, not just proceeding horizontally to read, but in 3 dimensions, "swimming" between layers of words.
By showing the system the papyri already open, the artificial intelligence will learn to recognize what is needed. Pigments of inks, position of the letters and other parameters that will lead to reading writings now invisible to the human eye.
"Over the next few months, we will refine the technology so that it can be easily applied to unopened rolls," Seales says.
What will be written there?
From what we have managed to come up with, the scrolls seem to contain works by the philosopher epicurean and poet Philodemus of Gadara. There is a strong possibility that they also contain texts in Latin, given the custom of ancient bookstores to host sections in both languages.
New ancient works
Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at the University of Oxford, is at work with the research team. He can't wait to find out what the Herculaneum papyri conceal.
“Only last year, from the fragments analyzed with the old method, a previously unknown work of Seneca. We could discover other incredible rarities ”.
The ancient collections may contain hitherto unknown poems by Sappho. Or maybe the treatise that Marcantonio wrote about his drunkenness.
Who knows, maybe there is even a text in which the inhabitants of Herculaneum imagine the future. Certainly they would need a strong imagination to predict that they would become an open-air museum, having lived in the ashes for nearly two millennia.