The contents of a 1,500-year-old-parchment scroll, burned so badly it could not be opened without destroying it, has remained a mystery since its excavation, 45 years ago, from inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi, Israel, on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
But scientists at the University of Kentucky recently used a new software program to digitally unwrap parts of the document and analyze its text. They were surprised to find the first eight verses of the book of Leviticus enshrouded within the scroll.
“The discovery was providential,” said Brent Seales, the University of Kentucky computer science professor who designed the software. “We didn’t know what we would find or where in the scroll the text would start.”
The most ancient manuscript of Leviticus that archeologists have discovered so far dates to the first century B.C. and is part of the Dead Sea scrolls. Researchers have found no other copies of the book dated to within a thousand years of that.
“It is important to go as far back as possible to the original sources and to have continuous examples of copies of texts without one-thousand-year gaps where we can lose track of things,” Seales said.
The scientists captured the text in the scroll through a two-step process.
First, a 3-D scan produced digital images of cross-sectional slices of the scroll, much like an MRI takes cross-sectional pictures of a brain. Next, the new software program transformed the cross-sectional slices into the writing on the individual surfaces.
The process is similar to what would happen if a doctor took an MRI scan of a tattoo on someone’s arm, Seales said. The scan would produce digital images of cross-sectional slices of the skin’s surface.
“Each cross-sectional slice would show only a smidgen of the tattoo. You would see the tattoo from the side of the slice instead of from the top,” he said.
The unwrapping software takes those “smidgens” of tattoo on the cross-sectional pieces, puts them together, and aligns them to produce an image of the whole tattoo. Geometry is important.
“If the smidgens aren’t lined up just right the image will be jumbled,” Seales said.
Seales hopes this technique will aid biblical scholarship by providing texts as far back as possible to the original sources and will increase our understanding of the time when Christ walked on the earth.
“It will be intriguing to pull out more from what we have already discovered, or from what we may yet discover, from that time period,” he said.
The researchers still have much work to do. They have analyzed only one of the six or seven layers available within the scroll and the Holy Ark at En Gedi is brimming with more remnants. Their technology also can be used to analyze other types of manuscripts, such as writings preserved from a famous author, that are too damaged to be unfolded.
— by Julie Borg