For nearly 2,000 years, since an eruption of Mount Vesuvius entombed and carbonized the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in A.D. 79, writings of unknown authors had remained unread, frozen in papyrus scrolls that had been turned to brittle and thin layers of black carbon in the intense pyroclastic heat that descended to where they were stored, in the villa of Julius Caesar’s father in law.
In 2022, a prominent researcher on digital image extraction, Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, was approached by Nat Friedman, former CEO of Github, to start a contest to engage the open source computing community in the quest to finally read these Herculaneum Papyri. Several milestones in the process were identified, with a prize attached to each: the Vesuvius Challenge.
This spring, Husker undergrad Raikes School computer science student Luke Farritor was interning at SpaceX’s Texas launch site and had a few minutes to listen to a podcast that had just dropped. On it, Friedman was explaining the contest to read the scrolls. Farritor says “I was like, holy cow, I have to give this a go.”
Using clues shared on Discord by others looking for letterforms in the data, Farritor trained a machine learning model to separate the carbonized ink from the carbonized paper, and soon he had an image that contained 16 letters, including a word that translates to “purple.” Farritor had enough to claim the Vesuvius Challenge’s First Letters Prize of $40,000. It was a significant step forward and inspired several others to push forward with their own research; soon larger sections of the scroll were coming into focus.
Farritor plans to take part of his prize and spend it on a new computer, in order to speed up calculations working toward unlocking more of the scrolls.
We don’t know how it translates to Greek, but Roman letters spell it out: There is No Place Like Nebraska.