Vesuvius Challenge – Effort To Understand Ancient Scrolls

Vesuvius Challenge – Effort To Understand Ancient Scrolls February 13, 2024

Mount Vesuvius rises in the background of ancient ruins.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried several ancient cities. {Picture courtesy of Pixabay.]

Ancient texts provide the basis for today’s knowledge about Greeks and Romans. Unfortunately, the Middle Ages saw the loss of many of those texts, so the opportunity to read newly found ones excites the academic world. The discovery of ancient papyrus scrolls buried when Mount Vesuvius’ erupted gave birth to the ongoing Vesuvius Challenge to read the ancient scrolls.

Where The Scrolls Were Found

The ancient city of Herculaneum, with a population of 4,000 – 5,000 residents, lies at the western base of Mount Vesuvius.  The still active volcano towers over the Bay of Naples in southern Italy.  The volcano’s catastrophic eruption in 79 AD destroyed the city, neighboring Pompeii, and other settlements, burying them under them under an enormous amount of ashes and cinder.

Volcano with plume of smoke rising from the top as seen across a body of water.
Mt. Vesuvius towers over the Bay of Naples. [Picture courtesy of Pixaby.]
In 1709, Herculaneum was accidentally rediscovered. But not until 1750 did workmen tunneling through the rock-hard volcanic debris covering the ruins reach an enormous seaside villa. In addition to bronze and marble statues, the workers found the remains of papyrus scrolls. Some 1,000 scrolls or pieces of them were recovered from the residence now called Villa of the Papryi over a two-year period.

The Scrolls’ Condition

Mount Vesuvius’ eruption carbonized the ancient library of scrolls now known as the Herculaneum Papry. This result means the heat from the volcanic blast turned the scrolls into carbon or charcoal. The effect on the scrolls attests to how catastrophic the eruption was, one of the most catastrophic in history.  In fact, scientists believe the blast released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Because of the scrolls’ condition, it was not apparent at first what the seeming lumps of charcoal were. Once researchers recognized the find as carbonized scrolls, they realized they could not open the charcoal masses without severely damaging them.

Where Are The Scrolls Now?

The discovery site of the scrolls is only partially excavated. Scholars believe thousands more scrolls may still be underground. The National Library of Naples holds over 800 of the scrolls already recovered.

The Vesuvius Challenge

How to read the scrolls because they remain rolled up is the problem facing historians today. In 2023 the Vesuvius Challenge launched to solve the mystery of what appears on the “flash-fried” Herculaneum Papyri.

Three men won the $700,000 Grand Prize by applying their expertise to a portion of one scroll which remained rolled up. They were Youssef M. Nader (an Egyptian PhD student), Luke Farritor (a 21-year-old college student and SpaceX intern from Nebraska), and Julian Schillij (a Swiss robotics student).

What’s On The Scrolls?

The writing found on the scroll examined in the challenge is in Greek. Philosophical subjects inspired by Epicureanism, which advocated hedonism, are the topic. That school of thought saw pleasure as the highest good. The likely author of the scroll is the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara.

The rows of pieces from ancient papyrus scroll set on a dark background.
The Vesuvius Challenge sought to have the writing on ancient papyrus scrolls read. [Picture courtesy of the Vesuvius Challenge.]
Resulting from the challenge is new text from the ancient world never before seen. The author writes about food, music, and how to enjoy the pleasures of life. He even makes comments related to philosophical rivals.

The Challenge Continues

The success of the original Vesuvius Challenge provided the impetus for a new challenge in 2024 offering a $100,000 grand prize. To attain this prize, a team must be the first to read at least 90% of the four scanned scrolls. Fueled by monetary incentive and intellectual curiosity, will the 2024 Vesuvius Challenge participants meet the challenge?

What’s Your Challenge?

Although most people don’t have the expertise for a challenge such as the Vesuvius one, a different challenge faces believers every day. They possess an ancient text, the Bible, which they need to read, study, and apply to their own lives. No monetary award dangles before them to provide incentive. But the “grand prize” is priceless—a deeper, more personal relationship with God. What effort will you put into understanding this “ancient scroll?”

About Alice H Murray
After 35 years as a Florida adoption attorney, Alice H. Murray now pursues a different path as Operations Manager for End Game Press. With a passion for writing, she is constantly creating with words. Her work includes contributions to several Short And Sweet books, The Upper Room, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Abba’s Lessons (from CrossRiver Media), and the Northwest Florida Literary Review. Alice is a regular contributor to GO!, a quarterly Christian magazine in the Florida Panhandle, and she has three devotions a month published online by Dynamic Women in Missions. Her devotions have also appeared in compilation devotionals such as Ordinary People Extraordinary God (July 2023) and Guideposts’ Pray A Word A Day, Vol. 2 (June 2023) and pray a word for Hope (September 2023). Alice’s first book, The Secret of Chimneys, an annotated Agatha Christie mystery, was released in April 2023 with a second such book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, to be released in April 2025. On a weekly basis, Alice posts on her blog about curre nt events with a humorous point of view at You can read more about the author here.

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