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Archaeologists unlock secrets of ancient Israeli scroll, discover biblical text

Posted October 3

Archaeologists faced a major dilemma after digging up a tiny scroll in 1970 while excavating an ancient Israeli synagogue: they couldn't open it.

The Ein Gedi Scroll was so fragile, in fact, that merely touching it caused pieces of the animal-skin document to break off. So, for decades, experts found themselves unable to unwrap it to see what was inside, NPR reported.

But now that has changed, as new technology has allowed scientists to see the scroll's contents for the first time in more than four decades.

In order to carry out this complicated task, computer scientists at the University of Kentucky created a picture of the text inside of the scroll without needing to unwrap the document, relying on a process they call "virtual unwrapping."

"Computer imaging techniques are commonly used to preserve and share readable manuscripts, but capturing writing locked away in ancient, deteriorated documents poses an entirely different challenge," read an abstract for an article revealing the details in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal.

The text continued, "This software pipeline — referred to as 'virtual unwrapping' — allows textual artifacts to be read completely and noninvasively."

The virtual unwrapping process involved taking an image of the scroll, analyzing the layers to try to figure out where each started and ended, and then looking more deeply at the ink within to find letters and text.

That's a simplified version, of course, as these steps were quite intense and multifaceted. But what scholars found inside is notable, with experts at Hebrew University of Jerusalem identifying the first eight verses of Leviticus.

The scroll — which is described in the abstract as "the oldest Pentateuchal scroll in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls" — likely dates back to the third or fourth century, or perhaps even earlier. It was housed inside a synagogue that burned to the ground and was never rebuilt, making its recovery even more remarkable.

The text is believed to be around 1,700 or 1,800 years old, based on radiocarbon dating, which is older than experts originally thought when the analysis project was first announced in 2015, according to National Geographic.

The Ein Gedi Scroll is reportedly the oldest found in a synagogue's holy ark, with its contents also corroborating the long-held belief that the version of the Hebrew Bible being used today goes back 2,000 years, as The New York Times noted.

But there's yet another reason the digital unwrapping is important.

The methods used to unpack the contents of the Ein Gedi Scroll could prove beneficial in helping decipher other sensitive ancient documents that are also not able to be unwrapped for fear of permanently damaging or destroying them.

"Our approach for recovering substantial ink-based text from a damaged object results in readable columns at such high quality that serious critical textual analysis can occur," the abstract reads. "Hence, this work creates a new pathway for subsequent textual discoveries buried within the confines of damaged materials."

Study author Brent Seales, a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, told National Geographic he has spent two decades working with technology to explore damaged materials — and knew this day would come.

"The Ein Gedi Scroll is proof positive that we can potentially recover the whole text from damaged material, not just a few letters or a speculative word," he said.

The software used to analyze the scroll was funded by Google and the U.S. National Science Foundation, and will be released to the public by 2017.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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