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Virtual Environments: Virtually Unrolling Ancient Scrolls

Brent Seales of University of Kentucky

Mount Vesuvius in Italy erupted in 79 AD and buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash and lava. Everything was buried in the inferno, including an invaluable library of scrolls whose contents were rendered unreadable – or at least they were considered lost until Brent Seales came along. As director of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky, Seales was fascinated by the hundreds of carbonized papyrus scrolls that were unearthed in 1752 in a villa in Herculaneum that allegedly once belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Today, the scrolls are kept at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples and are believed to be the only intact library from antiquity to survive. Except, of course, that nobody could actually read what was written on them.

Historians have been searching for centuries for lost works from classical antiquity such as Sappho’s poems or Mark Antony’s treatise on drunkenness – works which are known only through references to them by other writers.
Until now, reading the scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri, as it has become known, has been impossible. Various attempts in the past to unroll some of them have led to their destruction – they simply fall to pieces. Seales believes he has found a way to “virtually unroll” them using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and highenergy X-rays.

With ultrabright light, we will be able to see the internal structure of the papyri.
Brent Seales, University of Kentucky
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To get there, he first traveled to Oxford in England. There, at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, a small university spin-off named Diamond Light Source was operating the UK’s national synchrotron. The device is a giant microscope that harnesses the power of electrons to produce ultra-bright light, allowing it to be used to study anything from fossils to jet engines, to viruses and vaccines – and perhaps fossilized papyrus rolls, too.
“With the ultra-bright light, we will be able to see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible,” Seales believes. The machine-learning tool he and his colleagues are developing will amplify the “ink” parts of the signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize them pixel-by-pixel, from photographs of fragments of the damaged scrolls that still show clear traces of writing. This data is then compared with the corresponding tomographic data (slice images) of the same fragments gathered by the synchrotron using multi-voxel pattern analysis. A voxel is a 3D image produced by combining the 2D slices. This offshoot of MRI imaging used in medical examinations produces by far the best resolution of any scanning technology. By applying that same logic to the still-rolled scrolls, it’s hoped that ink that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye will be revealed. “The first thing we are hoping to do is to perfect the technology so that we can simply repeat it on all 900 scrolls that remain [unwrapped],” says Seales. So far, his team has tested the method on two intact scrolls and four smaller fragmented ones from the Institut de France.
“We … shine very intense light through (the scroll) and then detect on the other side a number of two dimensional images. From that we reconstruct a three-dimensional volume of the object … to actually read the text in a nondestructive manner,” Seales explains. The goal is to train the system to pick out and learn subtle differences between inked and blank areas in the X-ray scans, such as differences in the structure of the papyrus fibers. Once trained on the fragments, it is hoped the system can be used with data from the intact scrolls to reveal the text within.

Virtual Environments - Super Scanner - source ©: University of Kentucky, College of Engineering

Super Scanner: Using the machine learning tool, the team hopes to amplify the “ink” parts of the signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize them pixel-by-pixel, from photographs of fragments of the damaged scrolls that still show clear traces of writing. This data is then compared with the corresponding tomographic data (slice images) of the same fragments gathered by the synchrotron using multi-voxel pattern analysis.

Many of the writings of the formative thinkers of the classical age have been lost. For instance, only one third of the writings of Aristotle survive. The founders of Western drama were the brilliant playwrights. Aeschylus and Euripides wrote around 90 plays each but only seven and 19 remain respectively. Historians would love to lay their hands on other lost gems like the missing texts of Livy’s History of Rome. After 2,000 years, their dream may be coming true – who knows what the scrolls may reveal?


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