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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Revealing History Virtually

Revealing History Virtually

The Vesuvius Challenge award winners (credit: SWP Media)


It is not often someone can sit among a small group, at an elegant building in their hometown, and participate in a technological revolution revealing history hidden for 2000 years. That is just what happened an event hosted by the Getty Villa in my former West Los Angeles neighborhood. The building is an exquisite replica of an ancient Roman country house re-created from architectural details uncovered in past excavations. The Institution is famous for it galleries, gardens, and currated displays of artifacts restored from antiquity.

                 Getty Villa garden and pool (credit: Getty Villa)                       Getty Villa walkway (credit: Getty Villa/SWP Media)

That afternoon, the Getty played host to an event recognizing recipients of The Vesuvius Challenge awards for their success to scan, unwrap, and decipher a lost text discovered during excavations in the ancient town of Herculaneum near Naples.

Approximately 1800 charred scrolls were unearthed from a lavish Roman villa in the mid-18th Century and the building became known as the Villa dei Papyri. The seaside estate became encased by hot mud that flowed from Mount Vesuvius when the volcano erupted in 79AD. The scrolls were carbonized like pieces charcoal in the oxygen-free environment of the super-heated mud. The hot, gooey, material hardened into 60 feet of tufa and the town, with everything in it, became a 'time capsule' delivered from antiquity.

In typical, laid-back Southern California style, presenters offered insights on various components of this ground-breaking project. The Getty's curator of antiquities (Kenneth Lapatin) discussed the museum's long-standing efforts to preserve, restore, and display ancient artifacts while a papyrologist from the University of Naples spoke to the history and importance of the scrolls. She illustrating some of the scrolls held by the National Library in Naples. In one image, multiple scrolls, that had originally been stacked together on shelves, became carbonized as a single lump of 5 books. In full disclosure, 30 years earlier while in Naples, I had the opportunity to view the Herculaneum scrolls myself. They were stored on trays in a small, dingy office located in the basement of the library. The papyrologist was followed by an administrator from the Louvre Museum in Paris which contributed two of the ancient documents that would be used during the experiments for the Challenge. He explained how excited the Museum was to participate in this historic, HiTec 'exploration of discovery'. 3D printed plastic duplicates of the Louvre scrolls, originally been presented to Napoleon Bonaparte by the mayor of Naples, were shared around the audience.

       Herculaneum scrolls in Naples, 3D printed duplicate, and multiple scrolls carbonized together  (Vesuvius Challenge/SWP Media)

Software engineer Brent Seales then presented the University of Kentucky's digital restoration initiative and gave a humorous telling of their involvement in the Challenge. Seales and his associates combined big-data, micro-CT scans using computational power sounding as if it required the capacity of a super-computer server farm. This multi-disciplinary analysis of the carbonized relic also required information from chemistry, physics, and computer science to provide additional contextual details of the scroll. X-ray tomography, the word derived from the ancient Greek tomos to slice or section and grapho to describe, required a synchrotron particle accelerator to obtain full scans of the charred papyrus. A complete high-resolution visualiztion was then produced from the first scroll. The Kentucky group also developed a method to virtually 'unwrap' a random bit of papyrus that was used to help discriminate between the carbonized plant fibers in the 'paper' and the ink used to write Greek letters contained on the fragment. This massive data set and the 'unwrapped' bit was then used by other Challenge participants to train a machine learning (A.I.) program to try and reveal words hidden in the charred fragment. The first letters revealed turned out to spell the Greek word for 'purple', an import color in antiquity.

 Herculaneum scroll, exterior & interior, after cyclotron scans to create an X-ray tomograph (credit: Vesuvius Challenge/SWP Media)

Lastly, Nat Friedman, a technology entrepreneur who helped to organize the Challenge, illustrated how complicated it bacame to coordinate all these components. He developed guidelines for all participants to follow that included: incentives for making incremental progress; all efforts had to be 'open sourced' and shared with others; an 'intensify of purpose' was required to bring out the best in all collaborators; and prestigious results were required to win an award. Nothing simple here.


Competition, collaboration for success, and future excavations needed at Herculaneum (credit: Vesuvius Challenge/SWP Media)

Like a gigantic calliope with multiple peddles and constantly moving parts, the efforts to decipher a scroll that looked more like a charcoal briquette required all these technological tools, international legal agreements, dispersed interactions, and a certain amount of funding to conduct experiments across two continents. Friedman added that all these efforts had to be accomplished in less than one year. The required goal was to decifer 140 characters of Greek text if participants were to win the Challenge. The 3 winners decifered more than 2000 characters in their moumental achievement.

Challenges are meant to be challenging but The Vesuvius Challenge was a technological over-the-moon shot with limited chances of success. That it succeeded, and with even greater results than anyone ever expected, was remarkable and thrilling to witness in person.

It felt like witnessing a paradigm shift in science and technology that was being presented at the Getty. The results revealed by this international venture have launched a revolution in 'real time' to recover more lost history, ideas, and culture stored within all the remaining charred documents. Unwrapping and reading more than a 1000+ scrolls is now underway. Only 25% of the classic Herculaneum manor has so far been excavated and expectations are high that the villa's wealthy owner likely maintained a far more extensive library in another still buried space. Imagine what stories those scrolls will tell when that room is finally opened! WHB

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