AI helps decipher 2,000-year-old scroll on life after Alexander the Great

The team has trained a computer program on how to detect ink on papyri.
Deena Theresa
Alexander the Great pictured in mosaic.
Alexander the Great pictured in mosaic.


AI has entered a scroll.

Thanks to machine learning, a 2,000-year-old damaged scroll on the dynasties that succeeded Alexander the Great could finally be deciphered after it was destroyed alongside Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

"It's probably a lost work," Richard Janko, the Gerald F. Else distinguished university professor of classical studies at the University of Michigan, said during a presentation at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies, held in New Orleans last month, Live Science reported.

"It contains the names of a number of Macedonian dynasts and generals of Alexander," Janko said, noting that it also includes "several mentions of Alexander himself." Only a few parts of the damaged rolled-up papyrus scroll's text can be read.

The research is not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Computed tomography scans analyzes detects ink on papyri

The lost book's origins can be traced to the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, a city that was destroyed alongside Pompeii. The villa was famed for its vast collection of papri scrolls that contains writings from the philosopher Philodemus (who lived circa 110 B.C. to 30 B.C.). The volcano's eruption resulted in the carbonization of the text. When it was somehow found, it was handed over to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. He gave it to the Institut de France in Paris, its current residence.

Janko said that a previous attempt in 1986 to unroll the papyrus resulted in further damage.

Brent Seales, director of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky, has been helping Janko study the papyrus using machine learning. The team has trained a computer program on how to detect ink on papyri - the application analyzes ancient scrolls with computed tomography scans, which take thousands of X-rays to make 3D digital images.

"They have visible writing, so we can match up the ink locations with the exact place to search for that ink in the micro-CT," Seales told Live Science in an email.

The text is more legible now

Janko also stressed that the team's work makes the texts more readable. "With each iteration of his [Seales] work, the ability to read more of these fragments is getting better every time."

Live Science also reported that much about the scroll remains a mystery. There are no details on why the scroll was inside the villa. The author of the text is also unknown.

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