The work of Professor Brent Seales and his Digital Restoration Team were featured recently on the PBS science show NOVA and on the streaming network, Curiosity Stream. The hour-long NOVA episode aired November 6th. Curiosity Stream is a subscription-based, science-focused streaming network from the founder of Discovery Channel. Two clips from the excellent show can be viewed here and here, but users can sign up for a free two week trial to view the entire 20-minute Breakthrough segment, called “Herculaneum Scrolls: Unravelling History.”

The team’s recent scans of Herculaneum scrolls at Diamond Light Source, a synchrotron located just outside of Oxford, England, garnered worldwide attention, including an appearance on BBC Radio’s Inside Science. (See all of the international press coverage here.) A TV production team from the U.K. also followed Seales and his team to Diamond to record the scan session and create this “teaser” video for a documentary about Seales and his work. The final production will appear on networks around the world, including NatGeo in the U.K. and SBS in Australia.

October 12, 2023 –

The Herculaneum papyri, ancient scrolls housed in the library of a private villa near Pompeii, were buried and carbonized by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. For almost 2,000 years, this lone surviving library from antiquity was buried underground under 20 meters of volcanic mud. In the 1700s, they were excavated, and while they were in some ways preserved by the eruption, they were so fragile that they would turn to dust if mishandled. How do you read a scroll you can’t open? For hundreds of years, this question went unanswered.

That is until Luke Farritor, a contestant of the Vesuvius Challenge, became the first person in two millennia to see an entire word from within an unopened scroll this August. For that, we are thrilled to award Luke a $40,000 First Letters Prize, which required contestants to find at least 10 letters in a 4 cm2 area in a scroll.

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By Nicholas Wade

October 12, 2023 – From deep within a papyrus scroll that has not been read in almost 2,000 years and would crumble to pieces if unrolled, researchers have retrieved a handful of letters and a single word: “porphyras, ancient Greek for “purple.”

The new approach used to read the scrolls has been developed over the past 20 years by Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. It uses computer tomography, the same technique as in CT scans, plus advancements in artificial intelligence.

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By Erin Wickey

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug.24, 2023) — Restoring an ancient library from the ashes of Mount Vesuvius is now closer to a reality. To highlight the progress, this is the first in a four-video series featuring Brent Seales, University of Kentucky Alumni Professor in the Department of Computer Science in the Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering and his Digital Restoration Initiative team.

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By Lindsey Piercy

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 21, 2023)  They are among the most iconic and inaccessible of the world’s vast collection of damaged manuscripts.

Burned and buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the Herculaneum scrolls offer a unique window to the ancient world.

Unfortunately, they are too fragile to unroll.

But now, you can help resurrect the ancient library from the volcanic ashes. Brent Seales, a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, is leading a global competition to read the charred scrolls after demonstrating that an artificial intelligence program (AI) can successfully extract letters and symbols from X-ray images of the unrolled papyri (EduceLab-scrolls).

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Join the challenge

By Alicia Gregory

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 19, 2022) — It’s the signature on a bourbon barrel. It’s the ancient footprints in Mammoth Cave. Heritage science is all around us and has deep roots in the Commonwealth. Kentucky’s story begins in prehistoric times, when mammoths roamed the Ohio River Valley at Big Bone Lick.

In November 2021, the University of Kentucky announced a new $14 million mid-scale infrastructure grant from the National Science Foundation, that will allow UK to tell that story in new, groundbreaking ways through the lens of heritage science.

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Listen in on Part 1 and Part 2

The University of Kentucky takes a big step in advancing heritage science with the immense help of a $14 million infrastructure grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant supports the development of a world-class heritage lab at UK’s own William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology.

“We are at a turning point, science and technology present a host of exciting opportunities to the heritage sector. They must not be wasted.” Dr. Brent Seales said.

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Using light 10 billion times brighter than the sun, Professor Brent Seales and his team recently captured images of authentic Herculaneum material at Diamond Light Source, a high-energy physics facility in Oxford, England.  Thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, the team was able to purchase the amount of beam time needed to scan — at unprecedented spatial resolution — two intact scrolls and four fragments belonging to the Institut de France in Paris.

“This scan session promises to be a key moment in our quest for a reliable pathway to reading the invisible library,” said Seales. “The brightness and speed of the Diamond beam, and its ability to handle massive data sets, are crucial. We are using the Diamond facility to acquire scans of complete scrolls and also open fragments, with the hope that the open fragments will form a reference library — or training set — that can inform our machine learning software approach to visualizing carbon ink,” Seales continued. “If things work as we expect, the scans and the machine learning will open up the chance to see the ink very clearly for the first time.”

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Brent Seales - $2 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The University of Kentucky is poised to become a world-class leader in “unwrapping” cultural artifacts. Thanks, in large part, to a $2 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Professor Brent Seales finally has the materials access, funding support and technical approach needed to solve the 2,000-year-old mystery of the Herculaneum papyri.

The prestigious Mellon grant will provide the resources the team needs to virtually unwrap and digitally restore the scrolls. It will also support the electronic compilation and dissemination of the entire Herculaneum collection, which is currently spread across four different institutions: the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the British Library, the Institut de France and the Biblioteca Nazoinale di Napoli.

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A new study by Dr. Seales and his team refutes claims that carbon ink is “invisible” in micro-CT scanning and conclusively shows that machine learning can be used to elicit the stubborn text. Their groundbreaking work, featured in the science e-journal PLOS One (From Invisibility to Readability: Recovering the Ink of Herculaneum) demonstrates how characteristics other than density differences, which is the traditional imaging factor in x-ray, can be capitalized upon in micro-CT to reveal carbon ink writing. The team developed a 3D Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) that identifies the unique data pattern generated by the scanner when ink is present on the surface of papyrus, versus when the papyrus is blank. In the study, the team successfully applied the CNN to both proxy materials and the most well-known and sought-after of carbon-inked texts, Herculaneum papyri.  The team also developed a modification of the tool that can generate color renditions from the scans of the inked papyrus, thus providing a realistic facsimile of the original instead of just a traditional black and white x-ray image.

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Machine Learning

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 15, 2019)  Thanks to work spearheaded by University of Kentucky College of Engineering faculty member W. Brent Seales, UK is poised to become the world-class leader in digitally “unwrapping” and restoring one-of-a-kind cultural artifacts, such as ancient manuscripts.

Seales and his students have worked for more than two decades to noninvasively image and unfurl all types of fragile texts, such as “Beowulf,” the Dead Sea Scrolls and more. Seales, professor and chair of UK’s Department of Computer Science, has earned a reputation as “the man who can read the unreadable.”

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Professor Brent Seales has received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for his groundbreaking project, “Reading the Invisible Library: Rescuing the Hidden Texts of Herculaneum.” The Digital Humanities Advancement Grant of $325,000 will allow Seales and his dedicated team to continue development of computerized techniques to recover writings from the Herculaneum library, a collection of undecipherable papyrus scrolls were carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE (Common Era). More specifically, funding from the NEH is being used to develop a machine learning approach that will enable researchers to see hidden writing that is otherwise very difficult to visualize in X-ray based images. The funds support the construction of a large-scale neural network, including student and staff time for software development.

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Brent Seales - Reading the Invisible Library.
Brent Seales (center), professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at UK, is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for his groundbreaking project, "Reading the Invisible Library."

In the Press

DRI In the press

2020

Lighting the Way to Ancient Times – Kentucky Life | KET.org

 

2019

Le Monde

Les Papyrus D’Herculanum, Des Énigmes Fragiles

NOVA

From ashes to AI: How technology puts a new lens on ancient texts

The Guardian

Ancient scrolls charred by Vesuvius could be read once again

CNN

Scientists hope to digitally unravel scrolls charred by Vesuvius with light 10 billion times brighter than the sun

Agence France Presse (AFP)

Report from Diamond Light Source

France 24

Reuters

Report from Diamond Light Source

BBC South Today

Report from Diamond Light Source

WDRB Louisville

Technology at UK helping decipher ancient scrolls

Spectrum News 1

Reading the Unreadable: UK Researchers Digitally Restoring Lost Scrolls

The Washington Post

How do you read ancient scrolls too brittle to unfurl? An American scientist may have an answer.

The Telegraph

Herculaneum Scrolls to be sent to dentist for ‘virtual unwrapping’ to decipher texts from early days of Western civilization

2018

Mental Floss

Hidden Library: How Science Is Virtually Unwrapping the Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum

National Geographic

How Modern Technology Is Bringing Ancient Writings to Light

Smithsonian Magazine

Buried by the Ash of Vesuvius, These Scrolls Are Being Read for the First Time in Millennia

60 MinutesCBS News

2017

The New York Times

A Fragile Biblical Text Gets a Virtual Read

Discovery Magazine

History Unwrapped

2016

The New York Times

Modern Technology Unwraps Secrets of a Damaged Biblical Scroll

USA Today

Charred manuscript is one of oldest known copies of Torah ever found

Wall Street Journal

Researchers Reconstruct Early Version of Old Testament Text from Burned Scroll

Christianity Today

Biblical Archaeology’s Top Ten Discoveries of 2015

The New Yorker

The Invisible Library