Sunday, September 25, 2016

Burnt and charred ancient Bible scroll resurrected by computer science

An ancient biblical scroll that was reduced to a charred lump in a fire that destroyed a Jewish community in AD 600 has been virtually "unfurled" and read for the first time.

Image result for En-Gedi scrollThe scroll was one of several "charred lumps of what appeared to be animal skin" found nearly 50 years ago in the ark of a synagogue at En-Gedi on the shores of the Dead Sea.

It turned out to be the earliest example of the Book of Leviticus ever discovered, dating from around 400 BC.

The charred scroll fragments were preserved by the Israel Antiquities Authority but it was assumed that they were unreadable. 

"Each fragment's main structure, completely burned and crushed, had turned into chunks of charcoal that continued to disintegrate every time they were touched," reports Science

"Without a viable restoration and conservation protocol, physical intervention was unthinkable."

The En-Gedi scroll was shelved until pioneering work by Brent Seales and colleagues at Kentucky University's computer science department, in collaboration with the Dead Sea Scrolls project in Jerusalem, came up with a digital way to unwrap and read the scroll using latest visualisation techniques in computer science.

"By virtually unwrapping the scroll, we have revealed it to be the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book ever found in a Holy Ark," writes Seales in Science. "The restored En-Gedi scroll represents a significant leap forward in the field of manuscript recovery, conservation, and analysis."

Using an algorithmic "computational pipeline" involving merging and meshing 2D and 3D images, the scientists restored and revealed the text on five complete wraps of the animal skin of the En-Gedi scroll, an object that will probably never be physically opened for inspection.

This allowed a complete textual critique of the scroll for the first time in the modern era, revealing two distinct columns of Hebrew writing with legible and countable lines, letters, and words.

Seales writes: "These images reveal the En-Gedi scroll to be the book of Leviticus, which makes it the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book ever found in a Holy Ark and a significant discovery in biblical archeology. Without our computational pipeline and the textual analysis it enables, the En-Gedi text would be totally lost for scholarship, and its value would be left unknown."

The success of the project was due to collaboration between scientists, engineers and textual scholars.

"Although more automation in the pipeline is possible, we have now achieved our overarching goal, which is the creation of a new restoration pathway – a way to overcome damage – to reach and retrieve text from the brink of oblivion," writes Seales.

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