[Image Source: Science Advances]
Computer scientists teamed up with biblical scholars in Jerusalem to unfurl and decipher a formerly unreadable section of Dead Sea scroll.
The scroll, known as the En-Gedi scroll, contains fragments of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. For decades, this piece of parchment was one of several too tricky to be read. Reading the scroll would mean permanently damaging and breaking centuries-old texts. At nearly 2,000 years old, it’s now the earliest known instance of the Pentateuchal book Leviticus. The technology used virtual unwrapping to read the carbonized parchment discovered on the shores near Pompeii in Italy.
Computer scientists at the University of Kentucky developed and perfected the technology. Professor Brent Seales and his team realized traditional non-invasive methods such as CT scans would only jumble the words. In order to effectively rebuild the scroll, Seales must isolate each page, identify the text and then “rewrite” the text onto the page.
A three-dimensional volumetric scan of the manuscript gave researchers multiple cross-sectional views of the scroll. Those images were then scanned several times to identify individual scroll segments. The virtual unwrapping would then isolate sections of high-density material, like lead-based inks. The computer system would then combine the ink patterns and shape of the scroll segment to give scientists a flattened version of the text. Each flattened piece was then overlaid with other pieces to reconstruct the entirety of the text.
Seales serves as professor and chair of the UK Department of Computer Science, and he has been working for over 13 years on reading text inside ancient scrolls.
“The En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled an identified noninvasively,” Seales and his colleagues said in Science Advances.
The discovery sheds new information into the Dead Sea Scrolls and offers a glimpse into the earliest Biblical texts. Radiocarbon dating places the scrolls in third or fourth century CE, according to Seales’s report.
“This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay,” he said in a statement. “There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets — we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.”