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The Digitisation of the Dead Sea Scrolls

dead sea scrolls

The Digitisation of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Discovered between 1946 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls are arguably one of the most important set of documents of our time. Made up of 981 ancient manuscripts containing parts of what is now known as the Hebrew Bible, as well as a range of extra-biblical documents, they are some of the most important historical and religious documents to have ever been discovered.

First found by shepherd Muhammed Edh-Dhib as he searched for a stray along the limestone cliffs at Khirbet Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea, the shepherd found a mysterious collection of large clay jars which contained the old Scrolls. However due to their age, many of the Scrolls had been reduced to delicate fragments of parchment. But now, almost 2000 years after they were written, a new €1.6m project, which forms part of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, is using the latest imaging techniques – known as spectral imaging – and new software to fit the fragments together.

The project will use digital scanning technology to preserve the ancient documents which will transform the painstaking process of putting the tiny pieces of Scrolls together. The thousands of fragments are currently being scanned using high-definition, advanced imaging technology. Promising to reveal new information from the Scrolls, the ambitious project will piece together the fragments online – speeding up the lengthy process. Since the project started in 2012, researchers have been photographing each image in 28 exposures, already creating several terabytes of information.

Each fragment – many of which measure just a few millimetres – have been imaged on both sides in 12 different wavelengths of light (seven in the visible range and five in the near-infrared range). The computerised images of the Scroll fragments can be used to reveal text that was previously hidden in damaged sections and can also be matched up in order to uncover what they once said. An automated identification of words and letters will be used on the Scrolls to provide the possibility for advanced search options by helping to piece together the fragments into sentences and assist researchers in translating the texts.

Advanced digital tools are also being developed to help with the process. Looking for connections between images, text and matches between fragment edges, the new technology could change the face of scanning ancient documents forever. However with an estimated 20000 fragments due to be scanned in, it could take a while until the secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls are revealed – even with advances in document scanning technology.

At Pearl Scan, we haven't been able to get a hold of the Dead Sea Scrolls ourselves, but we regularly scan and digitalise old and delicate books. Find out more about how we do it by clicking here.