Researchers Read World' Oldest Damaged Biblical Scroll

Earlier scans of the En Gedi scroll revealed by imaging software

Archaeologists in 1970 uncovered En-Gadi, a site west of the Dead Sea which was once home to a large Jewish community from the eighth century BCE until it was destroyed by fire around 600 CE. According to co-author Pnina Shor, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem, when the scrolls were first excavated, a team member brought in the box of charcoal chunks and asked her to scan them.

Radiocarbon analysis has shown that the En-Gedi scroll dates to the third or fourth century AD.

The ancient charred scroll of Ein Gedi. Not only scientists are the ones to be amazed, but also men of religion who are, not only believers but also knowledgeable in this particular matter. Indeed, Shor explained in a press conference that her team used a medical imaging facility to produce digital scans that she sent to Seales to analyze in Kentucky.

Being able to read the text in its entirety is important for Biblical scholars who are attempting to piece together the history of humanity's most famous book. Vito Mocella at the National Research Council in Naples has already read single letters from the scrolls.

With segmentation, they identified each segment, or layer, within the digital scroll, which had five complete revolutions of parchment in the scroll.

They weren't expecting to find actual, readable text, but they did. The higher the intensity, the more likely it is to be writing. Only one of the scrolls could be deciphered. Then, it virtually flattened the scanned results. The method is called virtual unwrapping. Some sections are missing or damaged. On the left are the outermost layers, and on the right are the innermost layers. To attempt to read it by unwrapping the layers would be to destroy the artifact forever.

The study's authors say they hope to see more of the verses from the scroll. This means that the text would all be curved, and the slices taken from the X-ray scans would show how the text looked curving around the roll of material, so the computer scientists had to build another algorithm that could flatten the mesh in order to create a level 2D fragment. The consonants in the scroll are identical to those of the Masoretic text, according to The New York Times.

The En-Gedi scroll in the micro-CT scanner.

Symbols for vowels were not introduced in Hebrew until the 9th century. The unrolling revealed an amazingly detailed image: in clearly defined letters and columns, the writing was a very early version of Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch, which deals with ancient Jewish ritual, legal, and moral practices.

At almost 2,000 years old, the fragments represent the earliest known copy of the text ever found by archaeologists, and according to the Times, the digital image was able to capture words which were "amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll's blackened and beaten-up exterior". "In 2,000 years, this text has not changed".

However, high resolution scanning and virtual unwrapping has allowed Seales to recover substantial ink-based text at such high quality that Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholars can now conduct critical textual analysis. "My technical team and I, we never needed physical access to the scroll".

Last year, Rubina Raja at Aarhus University in Denmark used computer software to read inscriptions on an 8th century rolled silver scroll from Jerash in Jordan.

And Seales is eager to apply his software to other ancient scrolls.

In ancient times, many versions of the Hebrew Bible circulated. For example, the intelligence world could be interested in the new technique to extract information noninvasively from materials.

So if you're considering a career in spycraft, just remember that burning the evidence may not be enough anymore.

Realistically, they write in the paper, "the traditional approach of removing a folio from its binding - or unrolling a scroll - and pressing it flat" to read it simply will not work on fragile manuscripts "that have been burned and crushed into lumps of disintegrating charcoal".

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