Scientists Virtually Peek Inside Ancient Biblical Charred Scrolls

A completely burned Biblical text is now readable

En Gedi Scroll
University of Kentucky

Anyone coming across the En-Gedi scroll on the sidewalk would assume it had fallen out of a Weber grill. The tiny charred manuscript is impossible to unroll without crumbling to ash. So it’s lucky that archaeologists who discovered the scroll in 1970 in a Holy Ark while excavating an ancient synagogue at En Gedi, Israel, preserved the carbonized lump.

Now, researchers from the University of Kentucky have used computer tomography to scan the charred document and virtually unroll and read it. According to a press release, the scroll turns out to be the earliest known fragment of the book of Leviticus in Hebrew. “This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay,” says Brent Seales, chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky and leader of the study. “There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets—we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.”

According to Nicholas Wade at The New York Times, the team used a CT scanner to make a detailed 3-D digital map of the internal structure of the charred lump. Then Seales and his team put those scans through a process he calls virtual unwrapping. The first step is a process called segmentation, in which specially designed software creates an image of each layer of the rolled up scroll. Then, another piece of the software examines each of those images of the scroll layers looking for bright pixels which indicate the presence of ink. The software then virtually flattens the layer of the scroll and then stitches together all the images to produce a legible final document. The process is outlined in the journal Science Advances.

The unrolled scroll revealed 35 lines of text from the first two chapters of Leviticus. According to Rachel Feltman at The Washington Post, the scroll, which dates from between 50 and 100 A.D., is the most significant Biblical text uncovered since the the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

But Seales and his team did not just accidentally find a method for reading these documents. He’s been working a process for recovering damaged texts for 13 years, reports Wade. “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 told reporters at a press conference.

Seales will make an open-source suite of software he developed, which he calls Volume Cartography, available to the research community when his current government grant runs out. Wade says the software could help researchers uncover texts from several unreadable Dead Sea Scrolls.

Classicist Richard Janko tells Wade the technique may also finally reveal the contents of the library of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. His collection of scrolls was carbonized in Herculaneum during the same volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Researchers have some of those charred scrolls, but it is believed that there may be many more lost Greek and Roman texts in the unexcavated remains of his villa.

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