Take the Vesuvius challenge: Help decode the Herculaneum papyri
March 16, 2023 11:33 AM   Subscribe

You can help decode the Herculaneum papyri! A grand prize of 150,000 USD is being offered, with more prizes to be announced. It's on! Hundreds of scrolls that were carbonized and preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. have long fascinated scholars. They are uniquely preserved by virtue of being carbonized. But they are also uniquely difficult to access . . . by virtue of being carbonized. Early attempts to unwrap and decode them included rose water baths and tiny weights to unroll and stretch the scrolls. Surely modern science can do better!

Now technology including 3D scanning and ink detection may finally present us with the tools to unwrap and decode these scrolls. The tools are out there and have been shown to work, but no one has (yet!) used them on an unopened Herculaneum scroll to uncover whole passages. Even mundane scrolls could tell us so much about daily life at the time.

From the competition website:

"A Review Team made up of technical experts and papyrologists will assess all Grand Prize submissions to ensure that they can:
    Read at least 4 separate passages from the two scrolls, each containing at least 140 characters of continuous text
    Verify that each passage contains no more than 15% of characters which are missing or illegible
    Confirm that submissions contain legitimate and linguistically plausible text
    Independently reproduce and verify your results using your code and documented techniques"
To learn more and to enter the competition, visit https://scrollprize.org
posted by fruitslinger (12 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Put ChatGPT on the case. It'll be done in a few days.
posted by slogger at 11:36 AM on March 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

The digital unwrapping of the scrolls is one of the coolest applications of science to humanities scholarship of the past 20 years, I'd say, and anyone who could contribute to advancing the technique would truly be advancing our understanding of the ancient world. In other words, if you have the skills (I don't) and want to do something genuinely useful with your free time rather than listlessly toying with "AI," here's your chance.
posted by praemunire at 11:38 AM on March 16, 2023 [10 favorites]

The winner will probably use some kind of tomography like CT scan or PET scan, but with a smaller area of investigation and higher resilution.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:53 AM on March 16, 2023

via the official website: a really neat video showing the digital unwrapping process being performed on an old & damaged scroll.

this is such a cool project and prize, and i'm excited to see what comes out of it!
posted by ZaphodB at 12:19 PM on March 16, 2023 [3 favorites]


I was just 3 hours ago walking around the block, and saw that somebody left a copy of 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak in one of those little free libraries. I said "that's something that interests me!" and pocketed the book.

Now somebody's going to crack this problem, and just as I finish the book, it will be obsolete.
posted by polecat at 12:51 PM on March 16, 2023 [3 favorites]

Amazing, this is even more out there than rock flake reassembly (from knapping processes), initially from terrible painstaking manual methods, but now as a kind of CAD, just scan all objects and the software reassembles.
posted by unearthed at 1:35 PM on March 16, 2023

Love toldinstone. did a post on him.

"1,500-Year-Old Text Has Been Digitally Resurrected From a Hebrew Scroll" 2015
posted by clavdivs at 2:12 PM on March 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

posted by wheelieman at 4:11 PM on March 16, 2023 [7 favorites]


Props for the concept and the sponsors, but the purse seems a little light, given the kind of stupid money that our tech overlords command. I mean to say, a fraction of the cost of that stupid yacht.... And wasn't Zuckerburg supposed to be a Latin enthusiast back in the day? Come on, man! Pony up!

However hopeful I am (and for obvious reasons, I have a keen interest this particular historical event), I'm braced for disappointment. Not in the project's success, I'm not qualified to offer an opinion, but on what they actually find. The preliminaries suggest the owner was big into epicurean philosophy. Of all categories of ancient lit, that's not in my personal top ten.

Still, YMMV and good luck if that's how it plays out.
posted by BWA at 4:33 PM on March 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

The preliminaries suggest the owner was big into epicurean philosophy. Of all categories of ancient lit, that's not in my personal top ten.

It would be so valuable just to get, like, kitchen inventories, or letters to his farm managers, though.
posted by praemunire at 7:57 PM on March 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

True enough, though I have to doubt that's the sort of thing that fits into a full scale roll. I follow with interest, in any event.
posted by BWA at 8:01 PM on March 16, 2023

­čĄ×Missing poems from Sappho.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 6:48 AM on March 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

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