Culture

Scientists see inside extremely fragile Dead Sea scrolls

New technology being considered to investigate Vesuvius as well

Shai Halevi, the photographer responsible for the image processing of thousands of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stands next to a unique camera with special LED lights inside at the Dead Sea scrolls digital laboratory in the conservation laboratory of the Israeli Antiquities Authorities in Jerusalem, on February 24, 2016. 

Computer scientists and Dead Sea Scroll scholars began a new project in which they upload the Dead Sea Scrolls to a special digital working environment creating virtual workspace allowing scholars around the world to work together simultaneously, as well as a new platform for collaborative production and publication of Dead Sea Scrolls editions. The project will develop advanced digital tools to help identify connections between the thousands of tiny biblical scroll fragments and manuscripts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It aims to create a dynamic virtual work environment that will enable the production and publication of a new generation of updatable digital editions of the scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of hundreds of biblical texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek discovered 45 years ago in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea. / AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON

GALI TIBBON / AFP

Imagine finding a precious heirloom in your attic and not being able to look at it. Perhaps it’s a long-lost letter to your ancestor from President Abraham Lincoln, thanking him for his extraordinary valor in the War Between the States.

You’ve long heard of this precious piece of family history, and you are thrilled to discover that it was not, after all, lost.

But, as you begin to open it, you soon realize that if you go any further, the delicate, time-worn paper is just going to crumble and it will be practically worthless. So close, yet so far.

That is perhaps something of the feeling archaeologists had when they discovered certain scrolls in Qumran—the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the artifacts were so carbonized from age that if they were unrolled they would practically evaporate.

Fifty years ago, could the experts have imagined what technology might one day come along that would allow them to see the messages hidden inside? Whether they could or not, they decided that the best course was to set the scrolls aside and wait.

Finally, it appears, the wait has paid off. Computer scientists at the University of Kentucky, working with biblical scholars in Jerusalem, have used a computer to “unfurl a digital image of the scroll,” The New York Times reports.

What’s more exciting is that the new technique may make it possible to read other scrolls too brittle to be unrolled, including several Dead Sea scrolls and about 300 carbonized ones from the area of Mount Vesuvius.

What scientists found in the scroll were the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus. That may not be earth-shattering, since we already know the text.

But what was revealing was the fact that the new text bears striking similarities to the Masoretic text, the definitive Jewish bible. That text was thought to originate in the Middle Ages. The new finding suggests that it already existed in the first century AD.

So how does it work? The Times explains:

Methods like CT scans can pick out blobs of ink inside a charred scroll, but the jumble of letters is unreadable unless each letter can be assigned to the surface on which it is written. Dr. Seales realized that the writing surface of the scroll had first to be reconstructed and the letters then stuck back to it.

He succeeded in 2009 in working out the physical structure of the ruffled layers of papyrus in a Herculaneum scroll.

He has since developed a method, called virtual unwrapping, to model the surface of an ancient scroll in the form of a mesh of tiny triangles. Each triangle can be resized by the computer until the virtual surface makes the best fit to the internal structure of the scroll, as revealed by the scanning method. The blobs of ink are assigned to their right place on the structure, and the computer then unfolds the whole 3-D structure into a 2-D sheet.

Some scholars are already thinking of the new technology’s application elsewhere in the ancient world, such as Herculaneum, destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.:

Richard Janko, a classical scholar at the University of Michigan, said the carbonized scrolls from Herculaneum were a small section of a much larger library at a grand villa probably owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso.

Much of the villa is still unexcavated, and its library could contain long-lost works of Latin and Greek literature. Successful reading of even a single scroll from Herculaneum with Dr. Seales’s method would spur excavation of the rest of Piso’s villa, Dr. Janko said.

 

Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.