Luke Farritor, a 21-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska, just won $40,000 for a breakthrough discovery in science.
Farritor was the first to read a word from one of the ancient Herculaneum scrolls as part of the Vesuvius Challenge — a competition with $1,000,000 in prizes for people who can unlock the secrets of these ancient scrolls using modern technology.
Why the Herculaneum scrolls can’t be read like normal
Due to the intense heat, hundreds of papyri rolls were instantly transformed into carbonized pieces. Those ancient scrolls then lay buried in mud for 1,700 years until they were finally excavated in 1752.
Any attempt to unfold the Herculaneum Scrolls which now look like charcoal logs would cause irreparable damage.
“These are such crazy objects. Federica Nicolardi is a member the academic panel that examined Farritor’s findings.
That’s where modern-day technology comes in.
Instead, researchers have used X-rays and machine learning to read a word from one of the scrolls for the very first time.
As a part of the Vesuvius Challenge the University of Kentucky recruited Citizen Scientists to use AI in order to separate out words from X-rays of still-rolled scrolls.
Farritor was the first to read a word from the scroll and was awarded $40,000 from the Vesuvius Challenge at a press conference announcing the finding on Thursday.
To win the prize, Farritor needed to detect at least 10 legible letters on the scroll. Working on a region that was less than a square inch, Farritor’s algorithm detected several letters, including a complete word.
Farritor was the first person to submit enough legible letters to win the prize.
“I saw these letters and I just completely freaked out,” he said during the press conference. “I freaked out, almost fell over, almost cried.”
Niccolardi, a professor of classics at the University of Naples Federico II, read the ancient Greek word, “porphuras” which means either “purple dye” or “cloths of purple.”
While she noted that there isn’t enough context to understand what the scroll is saying, she said she’s confident scholars will soon be able to read more of the document. “I think this will be a great revolution” in the field of papyrology.
She noted that these are unknown texts, making their unraveling of great interest to literary scholars as well.
When Brent Seales, computer scientist from the University of Kentucky gets a full view of the scroll, they expect it to have familiar themes.
“What I expect is writing that expresses what it means to be human, speaking of love and of war and of the things that still matter to us because we are human, just like they were human.”
The future of unwrapped scrolls
With so many of the scrolls unread, there’s still a grand prize, worth $700,000, on the line. The team that wins will be required to read at least four passages of the scrolls.
Seales said it’s not just ancient texts that could benefit from the techniques the university is using.
He noted that the Frankin papers, damaged documents that were part of an expedition to the Arctic, are a candidate.
“It’s unclear what’s written on those papers,” he said. Virtual unwrapping might be the thing that could reveal it.”