When the legendary volcano Vesuvius erupted about 2,000 years ago, it buried everything around it in a thick layer of glowing lava and dust. A villa and its library in the city of Herculaneum also fell victim to the burning masses. It was long believed that all the records and scrolls buried in the eruption could never be deciphered because even the slightest touch would turn the delicate papyrus into dust.

But according to scientists at the University of Kentucky, a breakthrough may have been achieved in the study of the scrolls: They were able to decipher the first word of a charred writing – with the help of artificial intelligence.

As the British Guardian reported, among others, computer scientist Brent Seales said on Thursday that the first word had been extracted from a Herculaneum scroll. A success that many researchers would not have thought possible.

Although the scrolls were found in the 18th century, they are so charred and fragile when unrolled that any attempt to unfold them would probably destroy them irrevocably.

In order to decipher the historical writings, a team led by Seales launched the “Vesuvius Challenge” in March of this year. A competition to make the records readable with new ideas. Whoever can decipher four or more passages of the ancient writings (each more than 140 characters) by the end of December will win $700,000 in prize money. The competition is financed by investors from Silicon Valley.

To launch the challenge, Seales and his team released thousands of 3D X-ray images of two rolled-up scrolls and three papyrus fragments, along with an AI program trained to recognize letters in the scrolls by detecting changes in the papyrus perceived through the ancient ink.

With success: Two computer science students, Luke Farritor from Nebraska and Youssef Nader from Berlin, improved the program’s search process and independently came across the same ancient Greek word in one of the scrolls: “πορφύραc,” meaning “purple.” Farritor, who was the first to find the word, won $40,000, while Nader received $10,000.

Now it’s about making the surrounding text readable. Federica Nicolardi, a papyrologist at the University of Naples Federico II, explained that three lines of the scroll containing up to 10 letters are now readable and that more are to come. A recently discovered section shows at least four columns of text, according to the Guardian.

“With this word, for the first time, we delve into an unopened ancient book that speaks of royalty, wealth and perhaps even ridicule,” Seales explained. “What this scroll is about is not yet known, but I believe it will become apparent soon. An old, new story that begins with ‘Purple’ is incredible.”

Sources: The Guardian, Vesuvius Challenge