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Brent Seales Awarded NEH Grant to Rescue the Hidden Texts of Herculaneum

Brent Seales
Brent Seales (center), professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at UK, is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for his groundbreaking project, "Reading the Invisible Library."

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 5, 2019) Brent Seales, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky, is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for his groundbreaking project, "Reading the Invisible Library: Rescuing the Hidden Texts of Herculaneum."

Seales was among 253 recipients of NEH grants, totaling $14.8 million, awarded to humanities projects across the country.

“From cutting-edge digital projects to the painstaking practice of traditional scholarly research, these new NEH grants represent the humanities at its most vital and creative,” Jon Parrish Peede, NEH chairman, said. “These projects will shed new light on age-old questions, safeguard our cultural heritage and expand educational opportunities in classrooms nationwide.” 

The collaborative research grant of $325,000 will allow Seales, and his dedicated team, to continue development of computerized techniques to recover writings from the Herculaneum library. The collection of undecipherable papyrus scrolls were carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE (Common Era).

More specifically, "Funding from the NEH is being used to develop a machine learning approach that will enable us to see hidden writing that is otherwise very difficult to visualize in X-ray based images," Seales explained. "The funds will support the construction of a large-scale neural network, including student and staff time for software development."

In 2016, Seales developed the "Volume Cartographer," a revolutionary computer program for locating and mapping 2D surfaces within a 3D object. This software pipeline is used to generate extremely high-resolution images of otherwise unviewable text, enabling the ability to read a document without ever needing to physically open it. A breakthrough not only in digital imaging techniques, the first-of-its-kind software has profoundly impacted history and literature. Using the tool to reveal sealed secrets has become Seales' area of expertise.

More recently, the team has been creating a supervised learning network that "learns" how patterns in the data look when ink is present, as opposed to how patterns look when no ink is present. "The NEH funding is being used to collect the data needed to develop and test the network, with the end result being reading the text within carbonized Herculaneum scrolls," Seales said.

For continued success, there are three crucial components to the project. The team needs access to authentic materials from Herculaneum, and the technology needs to be fully capable. Funding is the final component that makes the work possible.

"We have been making progress on this project for many years, but with only two legs of this three-legged stool at any one time. First, we had funding and access, but the technology wasn't quite advanced enough to deal with the extreme challenge that these carbonized scrolls present. Then, came the technological breakthrough with the scroll from En Gedi, but access to authentic Herculaneum materials became impossible due to internal political issues at the overseas institutions that own them. Finally, access opened up, but our NSF (National Science Foundation) funding period was drawing to a close," Seales explained.

With the NEH grant, the team finally has all three areas of support needed to virtually crack open the scrolls and read them.

That being said, what's next?

In June, the team will travel to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to scan Herculaneum materials from the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples, Italy. Scans of opened pieces of the scrolls will be instrumental in the final development of the machine learning tool. The next step will be to apply the tool to the UCLA scans of an intact Herculaneum scroll in hopes of reading the text wrapped inside.

"It would be great if this project's success leads to the establishment of a digital restoration lab right here at UK, so our faculty and students could own the entire process — from the scanning and digitization of physical materials to their virtual unwrapping and reading. Our vision is that UK will become the global center for these sorts of projects."

More information about the Digital Restoration Initiative can be found online.