Digital rehab exposes Biblical roots of ancient Israeli scroll

Virtual unwrapping reveals Hebrew text inside fragile artifact

virtual image of unwrapped scroll

SCROLL PATROL  A digital analysis enabled scientists to virtually unwrap a fragile, more than 1,700-year-old scroll and determine that it contains the oldest known Biblical text, other than the Dead Sea Scrolls. The charred scroll itself is at right.

W.B. Seales et al/Science Advances 2016 (CC BY-NC)

Researchers have digitally unwrapped and read an ancient Hebrew scroll that’s so charred it can’t be touched without falling apart. It turns out the document contains the oldest known Biblical text outside of the roughly 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, the investigators say.

Archaeologists discovered the scroll’s remnants in a synagogue’s holy ark during a 1970 excavation in Israel of En-Gedi, a Jewish community destroyed by fire around 600.

In  a series of digital steps, slices from a 3-D scan of the En-Gedi scroll were analyzed to bring letters and words into relief on a pieced-together, virtual page. Those images revealed passages from the book of Leviticus written in ink on the scroll’s disintegrating sheets. Radiocarbon results date the scroll to approximately 300, making it the earliest copy of an Old Testament book ever found in a holy ark, scientists report September 21 in Science Advances.

This computerized recovery and conservation process can now be used to retrieve other ancient documents “from the brink of oblivion,” the researchers say.

Researchers describe the digital steps it took to unwrap a charred, roughly 1,700-year-old scroll and read its ancient Biblical text. Seth Parker/Univ. of Kentucky

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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