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En-Gedi scroll unfurled: How technology helped reveal an ancient biblical text

Scientists unfurled the previously unreadable En-Gedi scroll – an ancient carbonized text – using computer technology. Could this technology open new windows on humanity's past? 

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An Israel Antiquities Authority, IAA, worker presents fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, at the IAA offices at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2011. Scientists have now found a way to read the En-Gedi scroll, a carbonized scroll from the western shore of the Dead Sea.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/File

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A window onto the ancient world opened Wednesday when, thanks to a new technology, writings destroyed millennia ago became “readable” again.

Researchers and scientists from the University of Kentucky, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday that they have been able to read the En-Gedi scroll, a carbonized biblical scroll discovered in 1970 in a synagogue on the shore of the Dead Sea.

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The breakthrough is a step forward for scientists, who have been working to read carbonized texts and those that are too fragile to open. The contents of libraries across the ancient world could become available again, heralding a new era of study for scholars of religion, philosophy, and other disciplines. One of the libraries scholars hope to target is the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Only partially excavated, it is believed to contain hundreds of works.

“For a scholar, it would be wonderful to have a manuscript of Virgil written in his lifetime, because what we have are medieval manuscripts which have suffered many changes at the hands of copyists,” David Sider, a professor of classics at New York University, told The New York Times in 2015.

The process of reading the En-Gedi scroll began with the Dead Sea Scrolls Projects in Israel. Pnina Shor, curator and head of the projects at the Israel Antiquities Authority, and her colleagues did a micro-CT scan (a 3D X-ray imaging process) of the carbonized scroll to confirm that there was ink on each layer of the scroll. Having determined that there was ink on each layer — and, therefore, that there was actually something to read in the scroll — the researchers in Israel sent their scans to Kentucky. 

There, W. Brent Seales and other researchers “unwrapped” the scans. They identified five separate layers within the scroll, and positioned letters on the scroll using a virtual mesh of tiny triangles. Finally, the scroll was digitally flattened to make it more legible.

The En-Gedi text has already provided insight into religious history. Although some parts of the scroll were unreadable, researchers could make out enough of the text to establish that it is part of the Hebrew Pentateuch, specifically, two chapters from the Book of Leviticus. 

According to Emanuel Tov, one of the authors of the study and an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem, the text is identical to the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew Bible widely used today, which is also the version generally used for translating the Old Testament in Protestant traditions. The Dead Sea Scrolls, by contrast, contain numerous small differences.

What’s so significant about that? The text is an early Hebrew text, as evidenced by its lack of vowels. Tests place it between the first and fourth centuries AD. For Dr. Michael Segal, one of the study's authors, who works at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, it shows that the same text has been used by Jews for centuries.

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“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.”

The technology for reading carbonized scrolls will become open-source when Dr. Seales’ grant at the University of Kentucky ends. That timeline could spur further excavation of the Villa of the Papyri, as well as other locations where carbonized libraries may exist. For now, success with the En-Gedi text is an encouraging sign for researchers.

"Damage and decay is the natural order of things, but you can see that sometimes you can absolutely pull a text back from the brink of loss," Seales said during an embargoed news briefing on Tuesday.


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