Originally appeared in The New York Times
Nearly half a century ago, archaeologists found a charred ancient scroll in the ark of a synagogue on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
The lump of carbonized parchment could not be opened or read. Its curators did nothing but conserve it, hoping that new technology might one day emerge to make the scroll legible.
Just such a technology has now been perfected by computer scientists at the University of Kentucky. Working with biblical scholars in Jerusalem, they have used a computer to unfurl a digital image of the scroll.
It turns out to hold a fragment identical to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and, at nearly 2,000 years old, is the earliest instance of the text.Continue reading the main story
The writing retrieved by the computer from the digital image of the unopened scroll is amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll’s blackened and beaten-up exterior. “Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it,” said Pnina Shor, the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Scholars say this remarkable new technique may make it possible to read other scrolls too brittle to be unrolled.
The scroll’s content, the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, has consonants — early Hebrew texts didn’t specify vowels — that are identical to those of the Masoretic text, the authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible and the one often used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.
The Dead Sea scrolls, those found at Qumran and elsewhere around the Dead Sea, contain versions quite similar to the Masoretic text but with many small differences. The text in the scroll found at the En-Gedi excavation site in Israel decades ago has none, according to Emanuel Tov, an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“This is the earliest evidence of the exact form of the medieval text,” he said, referring to the Masoretic text.
The experts say this new method may make it possible to read other ancient scrolls, including several Dead Sea scrolls and about 300 carbonized ones from Herculaneum, which were destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
The date of the En-Gedi scroll is the subject of conflicting evidence. A carbon-14 measurement indicates that the scroll was copied around A.D. 300. But the style of the ancient script suggests a date nearer to A.D. 100. “We may safely date this scroll” to between A.D. 50 and 100, wrote Ada Yardeni, an expert on Hebrew paleography, in an article in the journal Textus. Dr. Tov said he was “inclined toward a first-century date, based on paleography.”
The feat of recovering the text was made possible by software programs developed by W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. Inspired by the hope of reading the many charred and unopenable scrolls found at Herculaneum, near Pompeii in Italy, Dr. Seales has been working for the last 13 years on ways to read the text inside an ancient scroll.
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.
The suite of software programs, called Volume Cartography, will become open source when Dr. Seales’s current government grant ends, he said.
The En-Gedi scroll was brought to Dr. Seales’s attention by Dr. Shor. A colleague, Sefi Porat, who had helped excavate the En-Gedi synagogue in 1970, was preparing a final publication of the findings.
He asked Dr. Shor to scan the scroll and other artifacts as part of a project to create images of all Dead Sea scroll material, and showed her a box full of lumps of charcoal.
“I said, ‘There is nothing we can do because our system isn’t geared toward these chunks,’ ” she said. But because she was submitting other objects for a high-resolution scan, she put one of the lumps in with other items.
Dr. Shor had the lump scanned by a commercially available, X-ray based, micro-computed tomography machine, of the kind used for fine-resolution scanning of biological tissues. Knowing of Dr. Seales’s work, she sent him the scan and asked him to analyze it.
Both were surprised when, after several refinements, an image emerged with clear and legible script. “We were amazed at the quality of the images — much of the text is as readable as that of unharmed Dead Sea scrolls,” said Michael Segal, a biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who helped analyze the text.
The surviving content of the En-Gedi scroll, the first two chapters of Leviticus, is part of a listing of the various sacrifices that were performed in biblical times at the temple in Jerusalem. Although some text has previously been identified in ancient artifacts, “the En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively,” Dr. Seales and his colleagues write in the journal Science Advances.
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.
Both Dr. Tov and Dr. Segal said that scholars might come to consider the En-Gedi manuscript as a Dead Sea scroll, especially if the early date indicated by paleography is confirmed.
“It doesn’t tell us what was the original text, only that the Masoretic text is a very ancient text in all of its details,” Dr. Segal said. “And we now have evidence that this text was being used from a very early date by Jews in the land of Israel.”
An article on Thursday about the use of computer technology to unfurl a digital image of an ancient scroll misidentified the journal in which the research appears and misstated the date of publication. It was published in Science Advances on Wednesday, not in the Thursday issue of Science.