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21-year-old undergrad wins $40,000 for reading 2,000-year-old scroll using AI: 'I almost cried'

Luke Farritor, an undergraduate from University of Nebraska, managed to decipher a word from an ancient rolled-up papyrus scroll that was fossilized for centuries.

21-year-old undergrad wins $40,000 for reading 2,000-year-old scroll using AI: 'I almost cried'
Cover Image Source: Facebook | University of Kentucky Pigman College of Engineering

An undergrad student from the University of Nebraska has accomplished the unthinkable, that too with the generous help of artificial intelligence. 21-year-old Luke Farritor became the first person to decipher a word from a 2,000-year-old rolled-up papyrus scroll which dates back to 79 CE, per PEOPLE. Farritor made this astounding discovery while participating in the Vesuvius Challenge which is a contest for people to utilize modern technology in order to decode the secrets of the ancient scrolls that hail from an ancient library in the Roman city of Herculaneum.


The scrolls from ancient times have turned into fragile pieces of fossilized carbon. However, the 21-year-old computer science major ended up winning the "First Letters" grand prize of $40,000 after managing to read more than 10 characters in a 4-centimeter square area of a scroll. Farritor's inspiration behind this participation happens to be the previous work of yet another contestant named Casey Handmer, who followed the research papers by Brent Seales, a professor at the University of Kentucky's EduceLab.


According to Nature, the young winner had worked on developing an algorithm that could be used to detect the number of letters on the ancient scroll. The word deciphered read "Porphyras" which means "purple." The undergrad also became the first contestant in the challenge to submit the required number of legible letters. "I saw these letters and I just completely freaked out," Farritor said, trying his best to contain his excitement over this discovery at a press conference, "I freaked out, almost fell over, almost cried."


“I took a screenshot. I immediately sent it to JP Posma, who sent it to everyone else. I sent it to my family. My mom called and she was like, ‘Hey, like this is the first thing that you sent me that really looks like the letters. This is really cool,’” he explained, per the outlet. Upon making the discovery, the undergrad knew he had to put some extra effort into enhancing the photo of the scroll he deciphered. “I was like, let’s keep going until it got to something that looks a lot like the image you’re seeing today,” he said.

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Since Farritor was the first one to report his findings, Youssef Nader bagged the second prize for deciphering the same word and was awarded $10,000. The ancient scroll was reportedly so fragile that it had a chance to turn into dust if it wasn't handled properly. Federica Nicolardi, who is a papyrologist from the University of Naples and a member of the academic committee that judged the findings of the contestants in the Vesuvius Challenge, described the ancient remains as "crazy" and "all crumpled and crushed," per Nature.


The scroll which has garnered so much interest has been retrieved from a site where Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and demolished the city of Pompeii in Italy. The natural disaster caused the city of Herculaneum to suffocate under several feet of volcanic ash, per the outlet. The devastation caused by the volcanic eruption turned numerous scrolls housed in a library of Herculaneum into fossilized pieces of carbon and for more than a thousand years, those papyrus scrolls were buried under mud until it was excavated in 1752.

“It was such a dream. I can actually see something from the inside of a scroll,” Nicolardi told the outlet referring to Farritor's groundbreaking discovery. She hopes that fellow papyrologists will soon be able to read the ancient documents and continue deciphering them. "This discovery could revolutionize our knowledge of ancient history and literature," Thea Sommerschield, a historian of ancient Greece and Rome at the Ca'Foscari University of Venice, explained to the outlet. The Vesuvius Challenge is still ongoing and the ultimate grand prize of $700,000 will be awarded to the one who will be able to read four passages in the two scanned scrolls so far.


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