The Dead Sea Scrolls Go Digital - 8/27/08

The Dead Sea Scrolls will once again be revealed.
Two thousand years ago hundreds of scrolls, which include the oldest written record of the Old Testament ever found, were buried in the caves of the Judean Desert. Now, sixty years after the fortuitous discovery of the first scrolls by Bedouin shepherds, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), to whom they are entrusted and who diligently strives to preserve them, has decided to provide researchers and the public worldwide access to them.

In a press conference that took place this morning in Jerusalem (August 27), the IAA presented a pilot program that is being conducted this week, involving the imaging of the Dead Sea Scrolls, using the latest in digital cameras. The project will involve the documentation of all of the thousands of Dead Sea Scrolls fragments belonging to about 900 manuscripts, and placing them in an internet data bank that will be available to the public. This will be accomplished by imaging the scrolls in color and infrared which allow, among other things, the reading of scores of scroll fragments that were blackened or ostensibly erased over the years and which were not visible to the naked eye until now.

The pilot project is examining the means that were selected for imaging and storing the information, and is also estimating the amount of time and resources necessary for implementing a project such as this.

Participating in the pilot project together with the IAA staff are international experts in the fields of imaging technologies and the management of large image databases, amongst them Dr. Greg Bearman recently retired as Principal Scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, Simon Tanner, Director, King’s Digital Consultancy Services, Dr Julia Craig-Mc-Feely, a manuscript expert photographer, and Tom Lianza, Director of Motion Picture and Television Technologies, X-rite Incorporated. Dr. Bearman has previously worked with the IAA and other national libraries on imaging of ancient texts, his group pioneered the application of modern digital electronic and spectral imaging to archeological artifacts. Simon Tanner has worked with some of the rarest artifacts around the world and helped numerous digital projects to succeed in delivering public and scholarly access to their treasures. Dr Craig-McFeely is Director of the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music and is internationally renowned for her excellence in the digital photography of manuscript materials. Tom Lianza has extensive experience in color and imaging. He is one of the early pioneers in the field of Color Management and developed some of the earliest digital flatbed color scanners.

As part of the pilot program the experts set up three separate imaging stations in a sealed and specially painted gray room:
• A high resolution color imager that will capture the current state of the fragments.
• A high resolution single wavelength infrared imager that will provide significantly increased legibility to the texts in general and of fragments that have deteriorated and have become illegible.
• A spectral imager with lower spatial resolution that covers the red and infrared portions of the spectrum. Spectral imaging will be used on fragments to monitor any changes in the manuscripts by measuring and monitoring their spectral reflectance.

According to Pnina Shor, Head of the Department for the Treatment and Conservation of Artifacts at the Israel Antiquities Authority, “In addition to acquiring the test images, which will be used to analyze and evaluate the quality control of the conservation, we are focusing on a workflow that will minimize as much as possible the exposure of the scrolls to light and will aid in determining the time and manpower needed for the complete imaging of all of the thousands of scroll fragments. The innovative technology will make it possible for the first time to scientifically measure changes in the state of the scrolls’ preservation. The spectral imaging will graphically record the condition of a scroll fragment and in several months we will photograph it again under identical conditions at which time we will ascertain if any changes at all have occurred in the graph. The fewer the changes that are discovered the better we will know that the scrolls are in an optimum state of preservation”.
Greg Bearman, a former senior scientist with NASA, put forth an innovative idea at the press conference, “I believe that by using spectral photography we will succeed, through non-invasive means, to determine the amount of water present in the parchment from which the scrolls are made. Data such as this has added value for conservation and preservation issues – if, for example, we discover that the parchments are too dry, it will be necessary to modify the conditions in which they are maintained”.

Background for the Dead Sea Scrolls Documentation Project

November 2007 was the sixtieth anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are perhaps the most important archaeological find of the twentieth century. Some 2,000 years have elapsed from time the scrolls were buried in the caves until Bedouin shepherds found the first ones by chance in 1947.

The scrolls are of great importance from a historical, religious and cultural standpoint since they are the most ancient Hebrew record of the Old Testament that has been found to date. They shed light on a time of great upheaval in the history of the Jewish people at the end of the Second Temple period as well as the history of Early Christianity.

Based on radiocarbon dating and paleographic analysis the earliest of the scrolls can be dated to the end of the third century BCE. However, the overwhelming majority of the manuscripts are dated to the first century BCE-first century CE, to the time of the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties.

The texts include: biblical scrolls, apocryphal or pseudepigraphical compositions and sectarian writings. The biblical scrolls contain sections of all of the books of the Bible (with the exception of the Book of Esther) and even a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. Some of the fragments are similar or identical to the Masoretic version and some are different. Alongside a small number of large scrolls, many thousands of scroll fragments were found which the first scholars assembled into approximately 1,200 plates.

Removal of the fragile scrolls from the caves in which they were hidden for over 2,000 years interrupted the environmental stability that had ensured their preservation. The ravages of time, as well as their handling and treatment in the early years have taken their toll. Conservators have long been concerned with the scrolls’ preservation and documentation. In 1991 the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), advised by leading experts in the conservation of manuscripts, parchment and papyrus, established a laboratory dedicated solely to the conservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The task is ongoing, due to the scrolls’ extreme brittleness and the need to employ the latest conservation methods known worldwide. Recently, the IAA, in cooperation with the Italian Ministry of Culture, decided to reevaluate the conservation procedures currently used, and to investigate methods of preservation for issues still unresolved.

The thousands of scroll fragments were photographed in their entirety only once, at the time of their discovery in the 1950s. Scholarly research and publication are largely based on these infra-red photographs, although the images represent the condition of the scrolls some fifty years ago, and even the best of them rely on photographic technology that has since been surpassed. Moreover, some of the images have themselves disintegrated. Since its foundation the IAA Dead Sea Scrolls conservation lab has limited photography to essential documentation and specific requests of images for research and publication. Thus, there is a gap in the detailed image information available to scholars, as well as a lack of an active image record that can be used to assist in the conservation efforts

The IAA initiated the digitization project in its effort to monitor the well-being of the scrolls, and to expand access to scholars and the public worldwide, while preventing further damage from physical exposure. To this end, in November 2007 the IAA convened an international committee of experts for the purpose of evaluating the most advanced imaging technologies and the management of large databases. The committee set a series of goals and objectives for the documentation and imaging project including: spectral imaging to improve monitoring for long term preservation in a non-invasive and precise manner; creating both a high resolution colour and an infra-red image of every fragment that is equal in physical quality to the scroll fragments which will thereby prevent any need to re-expose them; and documentation that will facilitate easy and uniform access to a data bank of all the manuscripts which, as previously mentioned , are composed of thousands of fragments.

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