Plato's burial place finally revealed after AI deciphers ancient scroll carbonized in Mount Vesuvius eruption

An aerial view of the papyrus during the analysis.
Researchers used different types of technology to decipher the ancient papyrus. (Image credit: Italian National Research Council)

The decipherment of an ancient scroll has revealed where the Greek philosopher Plato is buried, Italian researchers suggest.

Graziano Ranocchia, a philosopher at the University of Pisa, and colleagues used artificial intelligence (AI) to decipher text preserved on charred pieces of papyrus recovered in Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town located near Pompeii, according to a translated statement from Italy's National Research Council.

Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted, cloaking the region in ash and pyroclastic flows.

One of the scrolls carbonized by the eruption includes the writings of Philodemus of Gadara (lived circa 110 to 30 B.C.), an Epicurean philosopher who studied in Athens and later lived in Italy. This text, known as the "History of the Academy," details the academy that Plato founded in the fourth century B.C. and gives details about Plato's life, including his burial place. 

Historians already knew that Plato, the famous student of Socrates who wrote down his teacher's philosophies as well as his own, was buried at the Academy, which the Roman general Sulla destroyed in 86 B.C. But researchers weren't sure exactly where on the school's grounds that Plato, who died in Athens in 348 or 347 B.C., had been laid to rest. 

Related: Skeleton of man fleeing Mount Vesuvius eruption found in Herculaneum

However, with advances in technology, researchers were able to employ a variety of cutting-edge techniques including infrared and ultraviolet optical imaging, thermal imaging and tomography to read the ancient papyrus, which is now part of the collection at the National Library of Naples.

So far, researchers have identified 1,000 words, or roughly 30% of the text written by Philodemus.

"Among the most important news, we read that Plato was buried in the garden reserved for him (a private area intended for the Platonic school) of the Academy in Athens, near the so-called Museion or sacellum sacred to the Muses," researchers wrote in the statement. "Until now it was only known that he was buried generically in the Academy."

The text also detailed how Plato was "sold into slavery" sometime between 404 and 399 B.C. (It was previously thought that this occurred in 387 B.C.)

Another part of the translated text describes a dialogue between characters, in which Plato shows disdain for the musical and rhythmic abilities of a barbarian musician from Thrace, according to the statement.

This isn't the first time that researchers have used AI to read ancient scrolls that survived Mount Vesuvius's eruption. Earlier this year, researchers deciphered a different scroll that was charred during the volcanic eruption at a nearby villa that once belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law.

Jennifer Nalewicki
Live Science Staff Writer

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and more. She covers several science topics from planet Earth to paleontology and archaeology to health and culture. Prior to freelancing, Jennifer held an Editor role at Time Inc. Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.