Vesuvius Challenge Grand Prize.

Vesuvius Challenge 2023 Grand Prize awarded: we can read the first scroll!” This is a truly wonderful development:

Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption buried an ancient library of papyrus scrolls now known as the Herculaneum Papyri. In the 18th century the scrolls were discovered. More than 800 of them are now stored in a library in Naples, Italy; these lumps of carbonized ash cannot be opened without severely damaging them. But how can we read them if they remain rolled up?

On March 15th, 2023, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales launched the Vesuvius Challenge to answer this question. Scrolls from the Institut de France were imaged at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford. We released these high-resolution CT scans of the scrolls, and we offered more than $1M in prizes, put forward by many generous donors.

A global community of competitors and collaborators assembled to crack the problem with computer vision, machine learning, and hard work. Less than a year later, in December 2023, they succeeded. Finally, after 275 years, we can begin to read the scrolls […]

Go to the link for images and descriptions of the process, as well as a bit on what the scroll appears to be about (“music, food, and how to enjoy life’s pleasures”). As Don.Kinsayder says at MetaFilter, where I got the link, “The promise here is stupendous. We could recover so many lost texts! It’s a good time to be a Classicist. It’s a good time to be alive.”


  1. And the first scroll in question was written in Greek, which is not THAT surprising, but which is intriguing. Could it be that we will find some scroll(s) written neither in Latin nor in Greek? Or a scroll in Latin and/or Greek with added clarifications/translations/comments in some other language(s)? Oscan would be the likeliest candidate, of course, and such a find would revolutionize (Historical and Indo-European) linguistics even more than the sum of these scrolls are likely to revolutionize classical studies.

    Hmm, what could we wish for? A grammar of the Etruscan language in Latin? A piece of original literature in Punic, with translation + commentary in Latin or Greek? A grammar of Latin or Greek for speakers of Oscan, written in Oscan? A translation of the Iliad or the Odyssey into Oscan or Etruscan? Something like the above, involving some other language(s) (Gaulish? Venetic? Siculian? Proto-Berber? (pre?) Proto-Germanic?) Or something like the above, but involving a wholly unknown language, whose very existence nobody had even suspected?

    Yes indeed, a good time to be a classicist! Or a historical linguist, actually…

  2. I’m grateful for the foresight of archaeologists who preserve such mute artefacts in the hope that future technology may make them speak again.

  3. Yes, that struck me as well. They could so easily have reduced everything to useless ash.

  4. There may be more papyri in other rooms in the villa, yet unexcavated.

    A commenter on this at Ars Technica quotes his [spoilsport] papyrologist wife:

    1) there are thousands upon thousands of unpublished papyrus fragments in collections worldwide. For the foreseeable future, the greater bottleneck is trying to make sense of papyrus fragments rather than getting more of them.

    2) this will be more subjective, but there’s a lot of repetition among literary papyri, and not all philosophical texts are necessarily very interesting. In contrast, documentary papyri like letters and contracts can tell us a lot about classical society. (And to be clear, the Herculaneum papyri are literary.)

  5. This is amazing news!

    It would be wonderful to find Oscan or Punic or something in there, but I suspect the odds are not much better than they would be for finding a Bambara novel in a randomly selected private library in Mali…

    this will be more subjective, but there’s a lot of repetition among literary papyri, and not all philosophical texts are necessarily very interesting.

    Only a very dedicated specialist could manage to be more interested in letters and contracts than in hitherto unknown literary works, no matter how much the former might tell us about society. (Mathematical works, on the other hand…)

  6. Everyone is hoping that the Herculaneum Library is full of dictionaries of obsolete languages. But Herculaneum was a kind of resort town. It’s probably mostly beach reading. Romances, whodunits, light essays.

    I’m joking, but I think that rich Romans did have slaves read books to them when they were on vacation.

    Of course, anything that old is interesting, whatever it is.

    And the technology is seriously impressive.

  7. Lameen: Well, graffiti in Oscan were found in Pompeii, and if maidhc is right that we could expect to find some light reading among these scrolls, I would not be surprised to find some such light reading written in, or annotated/commented in Oscan…(Or, as a Romance linguist, dare I hope…in really, really, trashy, street-wise, super-colloquial Latin!)

    Also, there are tantalizing hints that non-Latin literacy was far more common and widespread, even in legal contexts, in Imperial times than might be expected: there is a late Roman reference to wills being written in Gaulish and Punic, for example.

  8. Obviously, scrolls from Claudius’s work on Etruscan language, history, and religion would be the Holy Grail for a Roman library from this period. Actual writing in Rasna would be pretty unlikely in first-century Campania though. Even in the time and region when their language was still vibrant, Etruscan commoners probably had relatively low levels of literacy compared with the neighboring, more egalitarian, Italic peoples. Too bad the volcanic eruption didn’t occur a century or two early, in Tuscany.

  9. I just want more Archilochus and Sappho. But Claudius’s Etruscan For Beginners would be nice too.

  10. January First-of-May says

    Seconded on Archilochus and Sappho, and IIRC there’s a bunch of geographical and historical stuff that’s known to exist but hadn’t been found yet…

    I’d be surprised if they’ll find anything in Etruscan. Gaulish is even more unlikely. Oscan… maybe. Punic doesn’t seem especially implausible, though, and I wouldn’t rule out Coptic.

  11. 79 AD would be rather early for Coptic; Demotic would work chronologically, but I wouldn’t expect many people in Herculeaneum to be able to read it. IIRC Claudius’ works on Etruscan seem to be an invention of Robert Graves’, sadly (although of course nothing rules out that he could have written such works anyway…)

    An Oscan novel, or anything at all in Punic, would be amazing! But I wonder if programs optimised for Greek text would even be able to make it out.

  12. The wiki page for the Villa dei Papiri mentions an illustration of “Hannibal or Juba”, linking to the page for Juba II. Presumably identified by dress? Or else it seems the ID should be clearer. The page doesn’t offer much detail at all, but I guess illustration may mean wall art.

    This makes it plausible the owner was interested in North African matters from beyond the Roman perspective represented by the bust of Scipio A. also found on the grounds. So I’m hopeful on Punic. Is there any evidence that some ancient form of Berber was a literary language that could be recovered? Inscriptions make me think it must have been written down for more than just accounting, so maybe?

  13. IIRC Claudius’ works on Etruscan seem to be an invention of Robert Graves’, sadly

    We have Suetonius’s report in book XLII of the “Lives of the Twelve Caesars”:
    To conclude, he wrote some histories likewise in Greek, namely, twenty books on Tuscan affairs, and eight on the Carthaginian
    Which looks more like historical/ethnographic works than like grammars.

  14. > But I wonder if programs optimised for Greek text would even be able to make it out.

    Luckily, it sounds like the programs are just detecting where the ink is, with the actual reading then done by humans. If I read the article correctly.

  15. Documentary texts on prices of books might be of some interest;
    more Philodemus (about whom Dirk Obbink wrote), maybe a bit;
    but the History of Posidonius, or Strabo, or Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa,
    would, for me, far eclipse such.

  16. May all of us be rewarded with our desiderata!

  17. Very exciting stuff. I’ve always regretted not going into papyrology; it’s almost the only part of classics where you can make truly new discoveries. The spoilsport papyrologist Y quotes is right about the massive amounts of papyrus fragments that have yet to be deciphered (some half a million in the Oxyrynchus collection alone), but the point is that these aren’t fragments. Even a single complete new literary work would be a major event. Personally, other than Sappho and the Tyrrhenica, I’m crossing my fingers for a Greek novel, the Wonders beyond Thule for choice.

    (Wiki claims Claudius wrote an Etruscan dictionary, but no source is given and I don’t see anything to that effect in Suetonius.)

  18. David Marjanović says

    The best Oscan inscription in Pompei.

    the Wonders beyond Thule

    There seems to be everything in that novel.

    I just want more Archilochus and Sappho.

    Even from a purely linguistic point of view, more Aeolic wouldn’t hurt!

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    Clearly Schrijver and other classicists, not being avid fans of what they consider to be plebeian sports, miss the real significance of these graffiti. The writer is a “typhosus”, celebrating the victory of (or just proclaiming support for) an unnamed Campanian side against an arrogant and triumphalist Roma. Similar graffiti (often including, either visually or in the text, sexual or scatological elements) can be found in many modern Italian towns and villages, testifying to the continuity of the ancient popular culture in the imperial heartland.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Are classicists that elitist? Among my colleagues I’m unusual for not being a fan of any sportsball team.

  21. I think PP’s tongue was inserted in cheek.

  22. David Marjanović says

    I got that; I tried to ask if the joke would even work.

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    @dm, hat
    I think I was reacting to the fact that there is so little to work on, both in this (albeit multiply attested) graffito and in the Oscan corpus (where the purported Oscan words are nowhere attested), that other, even more fanciful, interpretations are not excluded. Regarding “typhosus”, I feel that although I would like to project this to Vulgar Latin, a 19C or early 20C origin might be more probable.

  24. What I found fanciful, to use your charitable word, was the suggestion at the end that other instances of graffiti simply reading Roma were abbreviations for their interpretation of the longer graffito. As if you might write Rome as a way of communicating I fucking hate Rome.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Is there much evidence of anti-Roman sentiment by then in that area? Long time since the Social War, or even Sulla’s machinations. And the world had changed a great deal since then.

    Still, I suppose there are Americans who still resent losing their civil war (after a similar time lapse.)

  26. Kosovo Polje was six and a half centuries ago.

  27. Sulla supposedly wrote an autobiography, now lost. Given his character, I would not expect it to be a particularly self-reflective work, but it could nonetheless be interesting.

  28. I don’t remember the paper’s authors advancing any evidence for anti-Roman sentiment other than their read of the graffito.

  29. Peter Grubtal says

    There were sulphurous and sometimes violent rivalries with nearby towns, caused apparently by the too avid fans of plebeian sports:

    Looks very much like modern football hooliganism.

  30. Plus ça change..

  31. Did team sports exist in the Old World prior to 1492? Or was the focus always on the champ who won the race, or carried the goat’s head past the goal, or forced the opponent to beg mercy, or knocked the ball into the hole with the fewest whacks?

    Team sports certainly existed in the Americas. People like to derive baseball from ball games in Tudor England, but did those games involve teams? If so, was cultural diffusion at work?

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Did team sports exist in the Old World prior to 1492

    Hail to the Merciful Greens and Blues!

  33. Trond Engen says

    The Veneti!

  34. As if you might write Rome as a way of communicating I fucking hate Rome.

    Carthago servanda est!

    (By which Scipio-not-Africanus meant, Rome needs a strong external enemy if it is not to collapse into civil war. He was probably right.)

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