Artificial intelligence has made it possible to decipher 2000-year-old papyri!

Artificial intelligence has made it possible to decipher 2000-year-old papyri!
Artificial intelligence has made it possible to decipher 2000-year-old papyri!

Virginie Girod
SEASON 2023 – 202405:00, May 24, 2024

Artificial intelligence never ceases to amaze us, including in history! At the start of 2024, researchers were rewarded for their work on the Herculaneum scrolls. Charred during the eruption of Vesuvius almost 2000 years ago, these pages of history were thought to be lost forever. Until artificial intelligence manages to decipher them.

To find out everything about this scientific advance, Virginie Girod receives Jean-Christophe Courtil, historian and lecturer in Latin language and literature at the University of Toulouse-Jean-Jaurès.

Herculaneum is the neighbor of Pompeii. During the eruption of Vesuvius, the city was also destroyed, but in “a mudslide”, specifies Jean-Christophe Courtil, “which made it possible to keep it in a matrix. So everything was charred, but not burned.” Herculaneum therefore represents an inestimable archaeological treasure. The “papyrus villa” even represents “the only library from Antiquity that has been found intact” explains the historian. Inside, more than 1800 papyri. The only problem is that it is impossible to unroll these scrolls without destroying them. This is where technology comes into play: modern imaging makes it possible to reveal the inside of the papyrus without touching it and artificial intelligence has been trained to spot the outline of the letters in the middle of the charred pages to reveal a philosophical text unpublished. For the moment, only a thousand characters have been deciphered, and relate to Plato’s Academy. The author would probably be the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara.

“Of these 1800 scrolls, it is estimated that there are 1.5 million words. This is the equivalent of the 7 volumes ofIn Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (…) These are things that have mostly never been read. So we are going to discover a lot of things,” summarizes Jean-Christophe Courtil enthusiastically.

Topics covered: AI, philosophy, Plato, Herculaneum, Vesuvius

“At the heart of history” is a Europe 1 Studio podcast

– Author and Presenter: Virginie Girod

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Guest(s): Jean-Christophe Courtil

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