How A.I. Is Helping Scholars Unlock the Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls

A new handwriting analysis suggests that two scribes collaborated on a key ancient manuscript

High-resolution scan of the Great Isaiah Scroll
Two scribes with near-identical handwriting penned the Great Isaiah Scroll. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the lives of the people who wrote them have mystified scholars for decades. Now, researchers using artificial intelligence (A.I.) have come one step closer to understanding the ancient texts.

As Garry Shaw reports for the Art Newspaper, the handwriting used in the Great Isaiah Scroll—a manuscript discovered in an Israeli cave in 1947—looks identical even to highly trained human readers. But an A.I.-assisted analysis published in the journal PLOS One shows that two scribes actually collaborated on the document.

“With the help of the computer and statistics, we can pick up subtle and nuanced differences in handwriting that we cannot with the human eye only,” lead author Mladen Popović, a Hebrew Bible scholar at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, tells the Art Newspaper. “… It tells us they worked in teams. That is not just a conjecture, but based on evidence now.”

Scholars had previously noticed a break that occurs halfway through the 27-column manuscript, writes Peter Phillips for the Conversation. The break consists of a gap of three lines and a change in material, with a second sheet stitched onto the first. At this halfway point, the study shows, a second scribe took over writing duties. The finding corroborates research suggesting that the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been written by teams of scribes, perhaps with some working as apprentices.

The researchers began their analysis by training an artificial neural network to digitally separate the ink of a text from a leather or papyrus background.

“This is important because the ancient ink traces relate directly to a person’s muscle movement and are person-specific,” says study co-author Lambert Schomaker, an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Groningen, in a statement.

Next, reports Ars Technica’s Jennifer Ouellette, the team focused in on the Hebrew characters aleph and bet, mapping out the shapes of the letters in all their slight variations throughout the scroll. The researchers found that the two halves of the scroll were written in similar but distinct handwriting styles.

How A.I. Is Helping Scholars Unlock the Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Researchers examined minute variations in the Hebrew characters aleph and bet. Maruf A. Dhali / University of Groningen

Popović and his colleagues then created an averaged composite of the letter aleph for both the first and second halves of the manuscript. They realized that they could easily see the differences between the two composite letters.

Per the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Great Isaiah Scroll, written around 125 B.C., is one of the seven original Dead Sea Scrolls found in the Qumran Caves. It’s the largest and best-preserved of the scrolls, containing the entire Hebrew version of the Book of Isaiah.

The Dead Sea Scrolls include a range of Jewish writings from the Second Temple period. Some are “sectarian” writings that were specific to particular religious subgroups, while others were of wider interest to Jewish communities of the time. Scholars are unsure exactly which communities produced the scrolls.

The new research is just one example of scholars reexamining the ancient texts with the help of modern technology. As Megan Gannon reported for Smithsonian magazine last year, researchers used multispectral imaging to find traces of writing on Dead Sea Scroll fragments previously believed to be blank.

Scholars are eager to learn even more about the enigmatic writings.

“This is just the first step,” Popović tells Live Science’s Laura Geggel. “We have opened the door to the microlevel of individual scribes; this will open new possibilities to study all the scribes behind the Dead Sea Scrolls and put us in a new and potentially better position to understand with what kind of collection, or collections of manuscripts we’re dealing [with] here.”

Popović says the new technique could help researchers learn about the scribes who wrote other Dead Sea Scrolls, perhaps determining whether different writers worked together or had similar training. This could shed light on the communities that produced the documents.

“We are now able to identify different scribes,” he explains in the statement. “We will never know their names. But after seventy years of study, this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”