Led by UK computer science professor Brent Seales, the initiative will use innovative technology to non-invasively read the Herculaneum scrolls, a collection of papyri carbonized in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE that are too delicate to unroll. The grant provides Seales and his team with the resources needed to "virtually" unwrap and digitally restore the scrolls. The grant also will support the electronic compilation and dissemination of the entire Herculaneum collection, which is spread between the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the British Library, the Institut de France, and the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli.
In 2016, Seales' team developed the Volume Cartographer, a computer program capable of mapping 2D surfaces within a 3D object, enabling researchers to read a document without having to physically open it. Using X-rays, the technology is able to perceive metals in ink and differentiate writing from the surface on which it sits. However, the ink used in the Herculaneum scrolls poses a particular challenge, as it is made of carbon and is imperceptible in micro-CT images. To overcome that challenge, the team has developed a neural network that trains the technology to detect and recognize ink and non-ink patterns, an innovation that is in the final stages of development.
"We plan to keep showing the world what can be done, right here at UK," said Seales. "With the boost from prestigious organizations like the NEH and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation covering our immediate research needs, our next step is to grow the Digital Restoration Initiative into a world-class imaging and restoration lab. Overcoming damage incurred during a two-thousand-year span is no small challenge. But that's what we do in Kentucky — conquer the seemingly impossible."