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A Herculaneum scroll is scanned. LSA Classical Studies Prof. Richard Janko is helping translate the ancient scrolls. Photo by EduceLab/Courtesy of the Vesuvius Challenge

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, a plume of scalding ash smothered the western coast of Italy. Waves of gas and volcanic rubble blasted across the landscape, engulfing cities in a suffocating heat. To the north of Pompeii, the city of Herculaneum was buried under more than 60 feet of debris.

Richard Janko, the Gerald F. Else Distinguished University Professor in LSA’s Department of Classical Studies, is fascinated by what lies within the ruins of Herculaneum.

During Janko’s tenure at U-M, he has introduced thousands of students to “deep time”: the philosophies of past civilizations, how they continue to shape current events, and how lessons of the past can help us avoid future catastrophes. “I engage students in some rather big questions,” says Janko. “The humanities should inspire us to imagine how different things could be.” 

Janko believes that a library of ancient papyrus scrolls containing philosophical and scientific texts lost to the ages lies under the Herculaneum debris. Some of that buried wisdom is now coming to light, thanks to artificial intelligence and a competition that uses machine learning to decipher scrolls pulled from the wreckage.

Villa of the Papyri

Political and religious upheavals, along with neglect and decay, have led to the destruction of most texts from the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, though some of the best-regarded ones were duplicated and survived—and many can be viewed at the U-M Hatcher Library, which houses the largest collection of ancient manuscripts in the Western hemisphere. 

An abundance of papyrus scrolls that were unearthed in the 1700s could further expand our knowledge of the ancient world. The discovery of scrolls occurred at a villa in the ruined city of Herculaneum that was owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, and the scrolls are thought to include the writings of Epicurean philosopher Philodemus. Until recently, though, many scrolls were completely unreadable.

The Greek characters that were revealed as the word “PURPLE” are among the multiple characters and lines of text that have been extracted by a Vesuvius Challenge contestant. Courtesy of the Vesuvius Challenge


Papyrus biodegrades with exposure to the elements, but the 800 scrolls buried under volcanic debris from Vesuvius were preserved in a blackened, carbonized form. While attempts to unwrap the charred scrolls have met with modest success over the centuries, many remain intact. They intrigue Janko, who has spent four decades painstakingly translating the script on the opened, heavily damaged, Herculaneum scrolls.

“One of the most upsetting things happened to a Herculaneum papyrus that was gifted to Napoleon,” says Janko. “Unfortunately, an attempt was made to take it apart in 1986, and it broke into 300 pieces. It’s going to be terribly hard ever to put them back together again.”

The Vesuvius Challenge

If unrolling the Herculaneum scrolls is almost guaranteed to destroy them, how can they be deciphered? Fortunately, Janko’s friendship with University of Kentucky engineering Professor Brent Seales has led to some new opportunities. Using micro computed tomography—a type of 3D X-ray technique—Seales can flatten layers of rolled scrolls into 2D images for translation. With Janko’s help, Seales tested an early version of his technology on fragments of a Hebrew text in the U-M library collection. 

“Richard was an early adopter of our technique, and he volunteered to introduce us to U-M library staff when we struggled to find material to work on,” says Seales. “He was really responsible for helping us find a way to test our methods.”

The intact Herculaneum scrolls have presented a challenge to virtual unwrapping because ancient writers used carbon-based inks on the papyri instead of denser, metal-based inks. The scrolls, which were practically unreadable with only tomography, were shown by the Seales research team to contain ink evidence that could be enhanced by machine learning. Their published work confirming that fact was the basis for the Vesuvius Challenge, which invited contestants to improve the quality of the machine learning and therefore the readability of the results.


The challenge—co-founded by Seales in 2023—crowd-sourced training of an AI machine learning model to recognize ink from the Herculaneum scrolls. Seales’s team used a particle accelerator to create high-resolution scans of a few papyri and released scanned data to the public to improve the decipherment process, including segmenting the scrolls into distinct layers and finding the ink.

Janko and a team of papyrologists judged 18 entrants’ submissions, with a top prize of $700,000 going to a team of three students earlier this year. The teams competing in the Vesuvius Challenge refined machine learning algorithms on already-unwrapped sections of the scrolls, which were scanned by the Seales research team in 2019 at the Diamond Light Source outside of Oxford, England.

Janko hopes that Seales’s virtual unwrapping techniques will lead to further excavation at the Herculaneum villa.

“The scrolls that we found were just the contents of someone’s study,” says Janko. “This was the villa of a great Roman family, the Pisones. They must have had a proper library that would have contained great works of antiquity we’ve yet to uncover.” Janko believes that new technology to decipher carbonized scrolls will illuminate various ways that communities have organized themselves in the past, and provide fodder for imagining more fulfilling political structures for the future.


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Release Date: 05/08/2024
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: LSA; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Classical Studies