You Could Win $1 Million by Deciphering These Ancient Roman Scrolls

The Herculaneum scrolls have remained unreadable since their discovery in 1750, but researchers hope to change that

A blackened scroll
One of the scrolls carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius Antonio Masiello / Getty Images

Want to take home up to $1 million? All you need to do is read four ancient passages, each one only about the length of a tweet—without opening the scrolls they’re written on.

This is the challenge posed by a group of classicists, papyrologists and technical experts: the Vesuvius Challenge, to be precise.

Led by Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, the team hopes to crowdsource the best ways to use artificial intelligence to read the Herculaneum scrolls, texts that were buried 2,000 years ago by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

“It’s fun to take A.I. and build the future,” Nat Friedman, co-creator of the challenge and and former GitHub CEO, tells Nil Köksal of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). “But it’s also fun to use it to get a little window into the past.”

Scroll Scan
The 3D template can be combined with high-resolution images and infrared photography to reveal otherwise nearly  “invisible” ink. Seth Parker / University of Kentucky

The rules of the contest are simple: Seales’ team has already used X-ray technology to unroll two of the scrolls. (Back in 2016, these researchers made history when they virtually unwrapped the En-Gedi scroll, the oldest known fragment from the book of Leviticus.) The new Herculaneum scans are available to anyone completing the challenge.

Seales’ team has also trained machine learning algorithms to distinguish between differences in the papyrus’ structure, helping researchers see where ink settled on the page. All of this work is accessible to the public, with tutorials available on the project’s website.

The rest, however, is up to the challengers. The project’s leaders hope that enterprising participants will find a way to read the scrolls using the scans and A.I. algorithms.

“We’ve built the boat,” Seales tells the Guardian’s Ian Sample. “Now we want everybody to get on and sail it with us.”

Scroll 1, 54keV scan

In total, over $1 million is up for grabs in the challenge, a number that climbed as donations to the project poured in over the past few weeks. Although the grand prize is worth a full $700,000, teams can compete for smaller “progress prizes” along the way. 

“The purpose of progress prizes is to encourage contestants to solve important subproblems and release their work,” writes the team on the Vesuvius Challenge’s website. “We also hope that they attract more participants who are interested in starting with a narrower task, and then go on to try to win the Grand Prize.”

The history behind the contest begins with Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E., which decimated the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. To this day, the cities’ buried ruins have fascinated historians, who continue to unearth new discoveries.

In Herculaneum, the heat of the eruption carbonized scrolls from a vast library thought to be owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. They remained that way, untouched, until around 1750, when they were found during excavations.

A view of the ruins at Herculaneum Falk2 via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

In the years that followed, researchers’ early attempts to open the scrolls left many of them destroyed or fragmented—a devastating blow to historians. By the 20th century, researchers had stopped trying to physically unroll the texts.

“The scrolls represent the only intact library known from the classical world, an unprecedented cache of ancient knowledge,” wrote Jo Marchant for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.

Scroll Fragment
A fragment of one of the Herculaneum scrolls, unrolled in 1883-84 Henrik Knudsen

Since Seales began his pioneering work on digital unwrapping, the chance to finally read the scrolls has started to seem like less of a pipe dream. And with so much prize money on the line, the Vesuvius Challenge team hopes to bring out the sharpest minds.

Friedman hopes the intrigue of solving a puzzle so many years in the making attracts those thinkers. “You don’t often have a chance to work on a 300-year-old puzzle and to go, as a technical person, on an Indiana Jones-style archaeology adventure,” he tells the CBC.

“This,” he adds, “is one of those rare chances.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.