pompeii frescoes robots
Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the background. Credit:ElfQrin/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

A robot fitted with artificial intelligence will be used to restore the stunning frescoes damaged in Pompeii nearly 2,000 years ago when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, leaving the ancient city blanketed in volcanic ash.

After the volcano erupted, lava coursed down to the land below and hot ash covered the entire city, which was home to around 13,000 people, preserving not only the bodies of the residents, but also their possessions and homes, and even their food.

The site, which was first excavated in the eighteenth century under the order of King Charles III of Spain, has provided scientists and archaeologists a rare peek into the daily life of the ancient Romans.

Pompeii provides view into ancient Roman life

The ancient city, located near Naples, has been the source of essential information regarding daily life in the Roman Empire in that period, as the city remained extraordinarily well preserved after it was covered in ash from the volcano that erupted in 79 AD.

While archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of well-preserved artifacts from the site, they have also found countless objects that have been damaged, such as priceless frescoes.

Archaeologists have uncovered innumerable damaged fragments of frescoes from the site, and until recently, they have been unsure as to what to do with them.

Elena Gravina, a conservator at Pompeii, told the BBC that “I think here we (have) 10,000 pieces of fragments…This is only a little part. In other storerooms, we have more and more in boxes.”

Scientists from the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) have now provided a solution to that problem in the form of robots fitted with artificial intelligence, which will conduct the painstaking reconstruction of the frescoes.

Robots will use AI to reconstruct Pompeii frescoes

The robots, called RePAIR, will use artificial intelligence to sift through the fresco pieces and attempt to put them back together, which will help archaeologists tremendously in their reconstruction work.

Computer scientist and head of the development team for the robot’s AI, Marcello Pelillo, expressed how beneficial the robot would be for experts in their task to reconstruct the frescoes to The Times, saying:

“When there are hundreds of pieces, these frescoes can be put back together manually, but Pompeii has a collection of thousands and that needs technology.”

Arianna Traviglia, Director of the Center for Cultural Heritage and Technology for IIT, spoke to Scientific American about the project, stating:

“The idea is to work towards automating as much as possible this quite time-consuming and also boring activity of digitizing cultural heritage.”

The robot will first work on part of the frescoes in the Schola Armaturarum, once home to gladiator battles, which was located on the main street of the ancient city.

If successful, the robot will then go on to reconstruct fragments of frescoes from other buildings in the city, including the Casa dei Pittori al Lavoro (“House of the Painters at Work”) and Insula dei Casti Amanti (“Insula of the Chaste Lovers”).

“Insulas” were a bit like ancient roman apartment buildings, which housed multiple residences along with businesses and barns. They have often been compared to tenements.

Amazingly, according to the Scientific American, painters were in the very process of applying the frescoes to the walls of the two buildings when the volcano erupted.

Pompeii robots could be extremely useful in archaeology

Scientists have not yet finalized the robot’s design, but they may give it soft arms to avoid damaging the brittle fresco fragments while it scans a database for potential matches and then pieces them together.

If the robot is deemed a success, the innovative technology would be extremely useful in many areas of archaeology, as described by Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, to the BBC.

“If this works, I think it will have a huge potential in future projects, both in Pompeii and elsewhere, for not only wall paintings and pottery fragments, which is the majority of finds during most excavations,” he stated.