The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE is one of the most dramatic natural disasters in recorded history, yet so many of the actual records from that moment in time are inaccessible. Papyrus scrolls located in nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, for example, were almost instantly scorched by the volcanic blast, then promptly buried under pumice and ash. In 1752, excavators uncovered around 800 such carbonized scrolls, but researchers have since largely been unable to read any of them due to their fragile conditions.
On October 12, however, organizers behind the Vesuvius Challenge—an ongoing machine learning project to decode the physically inaccessible library—offered a major announcement: an AI program uncovered the first word in one of the relics after analyzing and identifying its incredibly tiny residual ink elements. That word? Πορφύραc, or porphyras… or “purple,” for those who can’t speak Greek.
[Related: A fresco discovered in Pompeii looks like ancient pizza—but it’s likely focaccia.]
Identifying the word for an everyday color may not sound groundbreaking, but the uncovery of “purple” already has experts intrigued. Speaking to The Guardian on Thursday, University of Kentucky computer scientist and Vesuvius Challenge co-founder Brent Seales explained that the particular word isn’t terribly common to find in such documents.
“This word is our first dive into an unopened ancient book, evocative of royalty, wealth, and even mockery,” said Seales. “Pliny the Elder explores ‘purple’ in his ‘natural history’ as a production process for Tyrian purple from shellfish. The Gospel of Mark describes how Jesus was mocked as he was clothed in purple robes before crucifixion. What this particular scroll is discussing is still unknown, but I believe it will soon be revealed. An old, new story that starts for us with ‘purple’ is an incredible place to be.”
The visualization of porphyras is thanks in large part to a 21-year-old computer student named Luke Farritor, who subsequently won $40,000 as part of the Vesuvius Challenge after identifying an additional 10 letters on the same scroll. Meanwhile, Seales believes that the entire scroll should be recoverable, even though scans indicate certain areas may be missing words due to its nearly 2,000 year interment.
As The New York Times notes, the AI-assisted analysis could also soon be applied to the hundreds of remaining carbonized scrolls. Given that these scrolls appear to have been part of a larger library amassed by Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher, it stands to reason that a wealth of new information may emerge alongside long-lost titles, such as the poems of Sappho.
“Recovering such a library would transform our knowledge of the ancient world in ways we can hardly imagine,” one papyrus expert told The New York Times. “The impact could be as great as the rediscovery of manuscripts during the Renaissance.”