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Ancient scroll gives up its secrets

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For the first time, advanced technologies have made it possible to read parts of a Torah scroll that is at least 1 500 years old, which was excavated in 1970 but at some point earlier had been badly burned.

The scroll was discovered inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi in Israel. High-resolution scanning and University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seales’ virtual unwrapping tool revealed verses from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus.

On Monday the rare find was presented at a press conference in Jerusalem, attended by Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports, MK Miri Regev, and the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Hasson. Seales attended via Skype.

“The text revealed today from the Ein Gedi scroll was possible only because of the collaboration of many different people and technologies,” says Seales, who is professor and chair of the UK College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science. “The last step of virtual unwrapping, done at the University of Kentucky through the hard work of a team of talented students, is especially satisfying because it has produced readable, identifiable, biblical text from a scroll thought to be beyond rescue.”

The parchment scroll was unearthed in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at Ein Gedi, headed by the late Dan Barag and Sefi Porath. However, due to its charred condition, it was not possible to either preserve or decipher it.

The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which uses state of the art and advanced technologies to preserve and document the Dead Sea scrolls, enabled the discovery of this important find. It turns out that part of this scroll is from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, written in Hebrew, and dated by C14 analysis, a form of radiometric dating used to determine the age of organic remains in ancient objects) to the late sixth century CE. To date, this is the most ancient scroll from the five books of the Hebrew Bible to be found since the Dead Sea scrolls, most of which are ascribed to the end of the Second Temple period (first century BCE-first century C.E.).

The Israel Antiquities Authority cooperated with scientists from Israel and abroad to preserve and digitise the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Ein Gedi scroll was scanned with a micro-computed tomography machine from Skyscan (Bruker). Data from the scan is the sole basis of Seales’ software analysis. The scanning process is x-ray-based and completely non-invasive as the Ein Gedi scroll is badly damaged from fire and cannot be physically opened. The scans were done in Israel with assistance from Merkel Technologies Company. Israel and Pnina Shor, curator and director of IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, provided the data to Seales for analysis. Results were produced non-invasively from scan data alone – the Ein Gedi scroll itself remains intact and unopened.

“The partnership with Pnina Shor of the IAA has been particularly satisfying in the way she has enabled our team to work on data from one of the most storied and valuable collections in the world,” Seales says. “I am humbled by her trust in our research team, and gratified to produce for her and the entire scholarly community these exceptional results.”

The results come from research and a software prototype designed to do “virtual unwrapping” of surfaces from within volumetric scans. This unwrapping process allows the visualisation of evidence of writing on a surface from within a scanned volume. Because the surfaces of the object being scanned are not flat like a book – rather they are rolled up as a scroll – the visualisation of the surface and the evidence of writing upon the surface is a complex process.

“I have been using the word ‘surface’ to refer to the page of biblical text we have revealed. But this is a term of geometry, not of precise position,” Seales says. “The page actually comes from a layer buried deep within the many
wraps of the scroll body, and is possible to view it only through the remarkable results of our software, which implements the research idea of ‘virtual unwrapping’.”

It was a surprise, therefore, when the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus became legible.