Modern Technology Adds to Knowledge of Culture and Religion
(p. A6) Nearly half a century ago, archaeologists found a charred ancient scroll in the ark of a synagogue on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
The lump of carbonized parchment could not be opened or read. Its curators did nothing but conserve it, hoping that new technology might one day emerge to make the scroll legible.
Just such a technology has now been perfected by computer scientists at the University of Kentucky. Working with biblical scholars in Jerusalem, they have used a computer to unfurl a digital image of the scroll.
It turns out to hold a fragment identical to the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and, at nearly 2,000 years old, is the earliest instance of the text.
The writing retrieved by the computer from the digital image of the unopened scroll is amazingly clear and legible, in contrast to the scroll's blackened and beaten-up exterior. "Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it," said Pnina Shor, the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Scholars say this remarkable new technique may make it possible to read other scrolls too brittle to be unrolled.
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The experts say this new method may make it possible to read other ancient scrolls, including several Dead Sea scrolls and about 300 carbonized ones from Herculaneum, which were destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
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The feat of recovering the text was made possible by software programs developed by W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. Inspired by the hope of reading the many charred and unopenable scrolls found at Herculaneum, near Pompeii in Italy, Dr. Seales has been working for the last 13 years on ways to read the text inside an ancient scroll.
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He succeeded in 2009 in working out the physical structure of the ruffled layers of papyrus in a Herculaneum scroll.
He has since developed a method, called virtual unwrapping, to model the surface of an ancient scroll in the form of a mesh of tiny triangles. Each triangle can be resized by the computer until the virtual surface makes the best fit to the internal structure of the scroll, as revealed by the scanning method. The blobs of ink are assigned to their right place on the structure, and the computer then unfolds the whole 3-D structure into a 2-D sheet.
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(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 21, 2016, and has the title "Modern Technology Unlocks Secrets of a Damaged Biblical Scroll.")