College Student Uses AI to Read Scrolls That Were Illegible for 2,000 Years

By: Carissa | Last updated: Nov 14, 2023

Technology has paved the way for artificial intelligence (AI) to become a dominant force in modern times. AI has the astounding ability to accomplish tasks that humans have never been capable of.

While the uses for AI are seemingly endless, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student has found a new way to utilize the technological tool. Luke Farritor recently used AI to help him read scrolls that have been indecipherable for 2,000 years. His discovery has astounded researchers who have long searched for a way to decipher the writing on the ancient scroll.

A College Student Unlocked a 2,000-Year-Old Mystery

Luke Farritor did something that scientists have been unable to do for centuries.

Unrolled ancient papyrus scrolls from the first century sit at The National Library of Naples

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

The student was part of a worldwide competition to translate ancient Roman scrolls that were dated back to A.D. 79. The scrolls were significantly damaged by a volcanic eruption that occurred thousands of years ago, and researchers have been stumped on how to decode the impaired artifact ever since. Fortunately, the 21-year-old scholar had a plan. 

Farritor’s AI Program Made a Breakthrough

Farritor proved that sometimes all you need is a fresh perspective to solve an age-old problem. The quick-thinking computer science major used his wits to create an artificial intelligence program that was able to decode the meaning of the Greek letters written on papyrus.

Ancient Roman scrolls that were damaged from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius during the first century AD

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

The student received a text message containing a photo of one of the scrolls one evening while he was at a party. He took a moment to look over the image before uploading it to his AI program. In typical 21-year-old fashion, Farritor returned to the party and didn’t think much of the Roman scrolls. Later that night, he checked his phone on his way back to his dorm room.

A Complete Word Was Revealed on the Scrolls

Miraculously, Farritor’s AI program had decoded nearly a dozen letters from the photo of the charred Roman scrolls.

AI applied to ancient Roman scrolls reveal the word “purple” in Greek

Source: natfriedman/X

After 2,000 years of the scrolls being illegible, Farritor couldn’t believe his good fortune. “I was completely amazed,” he said. “I freaked out a little bit, jumping up and down, yelling, screaming.” With the help of Farritor’s AI program, experts known as papyrologists were able to translate the Greek letters into a word. “Porphyras” was written on one of the scrolls, which means “purple” in Greek. 

The College Student Received a Handsome Reward

Farritor’s discovery was prompted by The Vesuvius Challenge, “a project created by University of Kentucky computer science professor Brent Seales to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls.” If Farritor hadn’t signed up to join the competition, he may have never unearthed the hidden letters of the ancient Greek scrolls.

College student Luke Farritor wears a hard hat while working on Starship Launchpad’s software team

Source: lukefarritor/X

Farritor’s ingenuity paid off and he was awarded $40,000 for his contribution. He has also been credited as being the first person in 2,000 years to accurately decode a portion of the scrolls. That accolade will surely bode well on his post-grad resume.

History in the Making

Seales was impressed with the college student’s resourcefulness and praised his intellect at a recent news conference.

2,000-year-old Herculaneum scrolls on display at the National Library of Naples

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

He said that the scrolls are “something that people said you would never be able to read because it’s too hard to extract the text,” before adding, “And yet today we’re talking about exactly that.” The significance of Farritor’s discovery is astronomical. “Some 95 percent of the material from the classical period is lost, so we just don’t have anything,” said Seales while he announced the content. “And yet we know it was one of the most important philosophical periods of humanity. It’s an era shrouded in mystery for which we’ve lost most of the material.”


Many of the Scrolls Are Too Damaged to Open

In A.D. 79, a library near Pompeii was burned and buried under volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted.

A variety of Herculaneum scrolls at the National Library of Naples

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Inside the library were ancient Herculaneum scrolls. The library was discovered in the 1750s and more than 600 of the charred scrolls were retrieved from the site. Due to the condition of the scrolls, historians were convinced that unraveling them would cause them to fall apart. 


Will the Contents of the Scrolls Ever Be Known?

Today, many of the scrolls still remain rolled in place, just as they were 2,000 years ago. However, they look a lot different than they once did in centuries past.

A close look at a burnt Herculaneum scroll on papyrus from 2,000 years ago

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Black with ash and char, the scrolls are reminiscent of burnt logs. Historians have hypothesized that the scrolls could have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Regardless of their condition, the ancient scrolls are a masterful piece of history. 


Researchers Have Been Trying to Learn More About the Scrolls for Years

The fascination surrounding the scrolls has been mounting with each passing year. In 2002, Seales and a team of scientists created a computer program with X-ray-like technology that was able to see inside the rolled up scrolls.

Unraveled ancient scrolls that have been carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

The program would scan the documents in hopes of offering clues to what was written inside the ancient relics. However, the technology was not savvy enough to produce the outcome that Seales had hoped. 


Seales Has Developed Various Programs to Read the Scrolls

By 2009, Seales paid a visit to the Institut de France to conduct research on some of the Herculaneum scrolls.

A scientist attempts to read ancient Herculaneum scroll on charred papyrus

Source: IsraelNationalTV/YouTube

He attempted to scan one with his program, but the ink on the Herculaneum scrolls was made of charcoal and water, making it impossible for the device to read on the papyrus. In 2016, Seales began building a program that could identify any kind of ink on ancient documents. 


Progress Was Being Made

By 2019, Seales had gotten a clear scan of a scroll and his team received more funding to continue with their research.

Burnt and charred scroll that likely contains ancient Greek philosophical text

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Though his efforts were valiant, he still needed input from others who were equally as eager to decode the ancient scrolls. Seales created the Vesuvius Challenge in March 2023 with the promise of $1 million to anyone who was able to decode portions of the scrolls.


Finally, Things Started to Make Sense

Seales and his team worked tirelessly for decades to gain a better understanding of what the ancient scrolls had written on them.

An unrolled papyrus Herculaneum scroll that resides at the National Library of Naples,

Source: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Farritor would become one of the 1,500 people to enter the competition in hopes of making a historical advancement and possibly earning some prize money along the way. Another participant was a man from California named Casey Handmer, who eventually teamed up with Farritor to put their knowledge to good use. Together, they began to notice parts of the letters appearing on the AI program. 


Farritor Is Determined to Leave a Lasting Impression

Farritor received a portion of the prize money but the challenge is offering an additional $700,000 to anyone who can decode four complete passages from the scrolls.

College student Luke Farritor standing by body of water

Source: lukeboi0/Instagram

Farritor is continuing his quest to study more scrolls, but in the meantime, he has big plans for how he’ll spend his $40,000 reward, “I’m going to buy more computers,” he said before adding, “and win the grand prize.”