Scientists Just Digitally Reconstructed the Ancient En-Gedi Sea Scrolls

Thursday, 22 September 2016 - 3:22PM
Technology
Thursday, 22 September 2016 - 3:22PM
Scientists Just Digitally Reconstructed the Ancient En-Gedi Sea Scrolls
It's mind-boggling how much history has been lost. As a recent article in Nature argues, the discovery of the astonishingly advanced Antikythera mechanism (a 2,100-year-old device that was able to measure and display the astronomical movements of the sun, moon, and stars) points out huge gaps in our knowledge of what ancient civilizations were up to across the centuries. Today, we may have taken a step closer to uncovering that lost knowledge: an exciting announcement from a team of computer scientists and researchers is heralding a new age in archaeology, one powered by digital reconstruction.

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The implementation and application of our computational framework allows the identification and scholarly textual analysis of the ink-based writing within such unopened, profoundly damaged objects. Our systematic approach essentially unlocks the En-Gedi scroll and, for the first time, enables a total visual exploration of its interior layers, leading directly to the discovery of its text.
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For the past several decades, ancient manuscripts and writings had to be painstakingly preserved and examined using extremely delicate instruments. In the case of scrolls, the manuscript format of choice for centuries, this meant physically unrolling an ancient piece of parchment. As early archaeologists learned, even touching one of these artifacts could cause it to break apart or dissolve. In the case of the En-Gedi Scrolls, the focus of this new announcement, the researchers were dealing with literal pieces of burnt charcoal. Here's a photo:



That is the "scroll" the team set out to investigate. Besides the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, the En-Gedi Scrolls contain the oldest known copies of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. They are also the oldest Pentateuch scrolls to be recovered from a Jewish Holy Ark—the scrolls were excavated from an ancient Jewish community that existed from the late 8th century BCE until around the 6th century CE. The En-Gedi Scrolls, when first recovered, were essentially unsalvageable by current methods. 

Working together, the team (which consisted of Brent Seales, Michael Segal, and Seth Parker) created a new type of software that allowed them to scan the ink within the charred remains of the scroll, organize it all into layers, and "unroll" the scroll virtually, with no physical contact. 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. You can see an edited image of the translation here:



If the history-changing precedent set by the Dead Sea Scrolls is anything to go by, the technology Seales and his team have pioneered has the potential to revolutionize our ideas about the ancient world by opening doors that seemed closed forever. If even a badly charred lump of charcoal can be salvaged, who knows what other secrets are lurking in museums and archaeological sites across the world?
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