'Virtual Unwrapping' Allows Scientists To Unlock Secrets Of 1,500-Year-Old Scroll

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Charred Scroll from Ein Gedi (Photo Credit: B Seales)

While ancient scrolls hold many secrets, opening the delicate manuscripts is always a tricky endeavor. The situation becomes even worse when they are charred, as was the case with the Ein Gedi scroll, discovered by archeologists at the site of an ancient synagogue in Israel in the 1970’s. The animal skin document that resembled a lump of coal was extremely fragile, and therefore, never opened. However, the curators of the Israel Antiques Authority (IAA) preserved it in the hopes that some day, advances in technology would allow them to read what lay inside. Now thanks to a team led by University of Kentucky professor Brian Seales, that has become a reality.

The virtual unwrapping process that Seales has been trying to perfect since 2009 begins with a CAT scan of the damaged scroll. This enables the researchers to identify the number of rolled layers and determine exactly where the text is located so that it can be enhanced. They then digitally flatten the scrolls, making the content easier to read.

Virtually unwrapping the Ein Gedi Scroll (Photo Credit: Seth Parker, University of Kentucky)

The technology was first put to the test in January 2015 to peek inside the Herculaneum scrolls scorched by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy. However, while it allowed researchers to discern the letters and even a few words, they appeared as ‘floating images’ and were out of order, making it difficult to read. The University of Kentucky team has since worked on improving the software.

The new technique, which solves the ‘floating image’ issue by digitally aligning the words with the internal structure of the scroll, was recently tested to unwrap five pages of the Ein Gedi manuscript. To Seales’ delight, the text was visible and intact, albeit unfamiliar to the researcher. To identify the words, he sent the images to the IAA team in Jerusalem. It turns out that the scroll is written in Hebrew and is the earliest known copy of Leviticus, one of the five books of Moses — the first books of the Old Testament of the Bible. Since the text specified no vowels, just consonants, researchers estimate that the scroll is at least 1,500 years old!

Image of the completed virtual unwrapping of the En-Gedi scroll (Photo Credit: Brian Seales)

Seales, who published the findings in Science Advances on September 21, says the success of this project has enabled the team to create a systematic scientific blueprint that will make it easier to ‘virtually unwrap’ other, similarly damaged scrolls.

Resources: zmescience.com, uknow.uky.edu.

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