The 2,496th Meeting of the Society

May 17, 2024 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

The 93rd Joseph Henry Lecture

Unlost – Recovering the Text of Burnt and Carbonized Scrolls

Reading Herculaneum Papyri using X-ray CT and AI

Brent Seales

Professor of Computer Science
University of Kentucky

Sponsored by MWZB Law

About the Lecture

The Herculaneum papyrus scrolls, buried and carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE and then excavated in the 18th century, are original, classical texts from the shelves of the only known library to have survived from antiquity. The 250-year history of science and technology applied to the challenge of opening and then reading them has created a fragmentary, damaged window into their literary and philosophical secrets. In 1999, with more than 400 scrolls still unopened, methods for physical unwrapping were permanently halted. The intact scrolls present an enigmatic challenge: preserved by the fury of Vesuvius, yet still lost. Using a non-invasive approach, we have now shown how to recover their texts, rendering them “unlost”. The path we have forged uses high energy physics, artificial intelligence, and the collective power of a global, scientific community inspired by prizes, collaborative generosity, and the common goal of shared accomplishment, and the glory of reading original classical texts for the first time in 2,000 years.

Selected Reading & Media References

About the Speaker

W. Brent Seales is the Stanley and Karen Pigman Chair of Heritage Science and Professor of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky. He has also held research positions at INRIA Sophia-Antipolis, UNC Chapel Hill, Google (Paris), and the Getty Conservation Institute.

Brent also is the founder of EduceLab, a heritage science research lab at the University of Kentucky to promote the development and application of techniques in machine learning and data science to the digital restoration of damaged materials. The research program is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Google.

Brent also is a co-founder of the Vesuvius Challenge, an international contest formed around the goal of the virtual unwrapping of Herculaneum scrolls. He continues to work with challenging, damaged material such as the Herculaneum Scrolls and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The effort has achieved notable successes in the scroll from En-Gedi (Leviticus), the Morgan MS M.910 (The Acts of the Apostles), and PHerc.Paris.3 and 4 (Philodemus / Epicureanism). The recovery of readable text from still-unopened material has been hailed worldwide as an astonishing achievement fueled by open scholarship, interdisciplinary collaboration, and extraordinary leadership generosity.

Brent earned a BS in Computer Science at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and an MS and PhD in Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Social Media
Webpage(s): and
LinkedIn Profile: