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Deciphering the ancient scrolls of Herculaneum | 60 Minutes Archive

Scrolls of Herculaneum | 60 Minutes Archive
Deciphering the ancient scrolls of Herculaneum | 60 Minutes Archive 13:22

In A.D. 79, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii and the lesser-known city of Herculaneum – and with it, a library full of nearly 2,000 papyrus scrolls. Researchers discovered the library, housed in a villa thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law, in the 1700s. The scrolls it contained soon became an object of fascination for scholars, who have long believed that they hold troves of ancient knowledge. But reading what was written in the scrolls would be challenging: the volcanic eruption turned the scrolls into brittle, charred lumps, preventing researchers from unraveling their contents without turning them to ash. The scrolls' internal text remained inaccessible – until now.

Three students – Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor and Julian Schilliger – cracked the code on one of the scrolls last year. Leveraging a combination of machine learning and computer vision, the students deciphered a section of one scroll: a philosophical passage on pleasure. The students were aided by the groundbreaking work of University of Kentucky professor Brent Seales, who has spent the last two decades trying to unlock the secrets of the scrolls. Seales pioneered a technique for unwrapping the scrolls virtually, using powerful X-rays and artificial intelligence. The three students refined his approach, enabling them to read the scroll without ever physically opening it. 

Seales co-founded the Vesuvius Challenge, an international competition focused on resurrecting the ancient library. The students took home the competition's $700,000 grand prize in February, but the challenge is far from over. The students uncovered just 5% of one scroll. The next prize will be awarded to the first team that can decipher 90% of the four scrolls Seales and his team have scanned.

Using technology to unlock the secrets of ancient scrolls from Herculaneum | 60 Minutes 01:14


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