Digital Heritage – The Past Deciphered by AI

This is one of the most exciting advances I have read about for a long time! A pile of burnt scrolls survive from the Villa dei Papiri, Herculaneum. They are being examined by several teams from American Universities including the University of Michigan, and the University of Kentucky. They are just beginning to read fragments of the texts, using all the scientific techniques they can throw at it including AI. The AI has begun to learn to read fragments of the tightly rolled scroll.

Burnt Scroll
Burnt Scroll

The scroll they are working on appears to be a piece about Alexander the Great and his legacy. It is an unknown text or to put it another way, it is potentially a brand new source of information for this period of time. It has been suggested that it might possibly be a copy of the lost diary of Alexander’s secretary, Eumenos or may have been written by a friend of the general Antigonos.  Either way, potentially eye witness accounts. Or not, as perhaps, they may be asking too much from the first investigation. It may be more prosaic. Time will tell.

The implications, however, are so exciting! Just as the amazing excavations at Stonehenge (and indeed in London) have revolutionised our knowledge of these places, so AI could introduce completely new insights into the past. There are many rolls that were burnt in the collection, but now AI is beginning to read them. what insights we might get even from small fragments? One of the scholars involved is particularly excited to imagine the discoveries that could be forthcoming from the Middle East

‘While others would love to see some of the lost work of the ancients, what I’d like to see is evidence of the turmoil that was happening in the first century around the development of Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition as it was evolving.’

Brent Seales, University of Kentucky

Part of scroll unfolded
Part of scroll unfolded

But those ‘lost works of the ancients’. There are so many that would rock history: Tacitus’s ‘Annals’ missing missing the last two years of Nero’s reign. Pytheas ‘On the Ocean’ with its first references to Britain in writing. 6 Plays of Aeschylus, 9 Books of Sappho and the list goes on. Have a look at Charlotte Higgins piece in Prospect Magazine for a little more detail.

Another feature of the study is that the teams have released images to the cloud and are encouraging others to ‘have a go’ at reading them. This shows the strides that Citizen Science has made, and how, scientists acknowledge that, in the days of big data, cooperation pays huge dividends.

My source of information is the marvellous The Society of Antiquaries of London Online Newsletter (Salon) which ‘is a fortnightly digest of heritage news‘ and for more information look at Issue 509.

Another source is Interestingengineering.com.

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