Brazilians help reveal ancient library buried by Vesuvius

Brazilians help reveal ancient library buried by Vesuvius


The most important archaeological advance in recent decades is about to happen: thanks to artificial intelligence, scientists have begun to uncover the contents of papyrus incinerated during the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 AD.

The material was found in the city of Herculaneum, Italy — which, like Pompeii, was destroyed by the volcano. And a team of Brazilians played a fundamental role in the effort to unveil a collection that, by all indications, includes unpublished works.

Eruption destroyed city, but preserved papyri

Almost 2 thousand years ago, a violent eruption of the volcano Vesuvius surprised the residents of Herculaneum, in the south of the Italian peninsula. The city was suddenly covered in 20 meters of lava and ash.

It was only in 1750, by accident, that residents of the region discovered the ruins of what would come to be known as “Villa dei Papiri”, or papyrus mansion. They came across the construction when trying to dig a well.

The ruins have palatial dimensions: they are 20 thousand square meters on the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Archaeologists believe the palace belonged to someone prominent — probably Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Around 600 scrolls were taken from the Villa dei Papiri and stored in Naples.

Despite the important finding, the scientists faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Opening the rolls was not feasible: most of the time, this resulted in the destruction of the material.

Until, in 2015, a professor at the University of Kentucky, in the United States, announced a decisive breakthrough. Brent Seales has developed a technique that uses x-rays and advanced computing to uncover rolls without having to open them. He was successful in applying the technique to a manuscript found in the Dead Sea region, in Israel.

The technology has been improved by him and other scientists since then. But, in the case of the Herculaneum papyri, the mission was more difficult: even with the use of x-rays, the deterioration caused by the fire did not allow the material to be read.

Until now.

Unraveling the scrolls of Herculaneum

In March 2023, archaeologists began to have an additional incentive to dedicate themselves to the Herculaneum scrolls: a cash prize.

Technology allows reading of incinerated scrolls from Herculaneum.  Photo: Disclosure/EduceLab
Technology allows reading of incinerated scrolls from Herculaneum. Photo: Disclosure/EduceLab

In March 2023, a group led by Searle announced a competition open to academics and non-academics: the Vesuvius Challenge.

In the first stage of the challenge, the competitors had a modest goal. The objective was to uncover four excerpts of text, each with 140 characters.

The challenge was promoted by EduceLab, a laboratory created by Searle and which received US$14 million from the UK government. Billionaire Elon Musk’s Musk Foundation donated more than US$2 million to the competition.

In February this year, the project announced that the main prize, worth US$700,000, was awarded to three young researchers: Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger. They are, respectively, an Egyptian doctoral student living in Berlin, an American graduate student and a Swiss university student. They developed a system capable of “reading” entire passages of the papyrus — an unpublished text written by an Epicurean philosopher.

The author of the excerpt elucidated by the researchers is Philodemus, who was Virgil’s teacher. In the excerpt, he criticizes the Stoics, who preached a rejection of material pleasures.

Three other teams won prizes of US$50,000, tied for second place. One of these teams is made up of Brazilians.

Brazilian team adapted technology

Professor Odemir Martinez Bruno, from the São Carlos Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo, coordinated the work of the team of seven people (six Brazilians and one American). A People’s Gazette, he explained that the idea arose as a scientific initiation project by an undergraduate student, Raí Fernando Dal Prá, and expanded to meet the requirements of the challenge. “The team that won first place was working practically throughout 2023. The greatest dedication took place during the final three months”, says the professor.

Archeology is not the specialty of Odemir and his team. Nor do they speak Latin or Greek. The task was just one: develop a system that could identify the points where there is paint.

The EduceLab team published the images in high resolution. The competitors, who did not have direct contact with the papyri, needed to develop a way to identify the ink on the paper.

Researchers use artificial neural networks — systems that emulate the functioning of the human brain and allow the machine to “learn” to read images. The professor claims that the bulk of the work was done in just three months.

At IFSC, Odemir coordinates a team that developed one of the most effective technologies in the world for identifying textures. The tool can be used both in archaeological projects and in other areas, such as detecting tumors in the human body and identifying pollutants in plants. It was enough to adapt this technology to “teach” the machine to read the incinerated papyri from Herculaneum.

Collection could be even bigger

Despite the success with Philodemus’ text, the intelligible excerpt amounts to only 5% of the text of the philosophy treatise. There are almost 600 scrolls left to be brought to light. And some archaeologists believe there are even more papyri hidden in the still untouched part of Villa dei Papiri.

An area of ​​more than 2,000 square meters of the Villa dei Papiri has never been excavated. Now that technology has proven capable of reading the incinerated papyri, interest in the site is likely to be rekindled.

For 2024, the Vesuvius Challenge’s biggest prize ($100,000) will be given to whoever manages to unravel 90% of the first four reels.

Professor Odemir does not yet know whether his team will participate in new stages, but states that the initial step was the most significant. “Putting a rocket on Mars is the most important step in Mars space exploration because, until then, we don’t know if it’s possible to do it. I consider this stage of the Vesuvius Challenge to be the most important, because we discovered that it is possible”, he compares.


Source link