Thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls went online Tuesday with the launch of a new website by Google and the Israel Antiquities Authority, part of a move to make the famed manuscripts easily available to scholars and casual web surfers.

The website provides access to high-resolution images of the famous scrolls, which were written 2,000 years ago and first discovered at Qumran, on the Dead Sea shore, in the 1940s.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is in the process of photographing the thousands of fragments in its possession — pieces of an estimated 900 different manuscripts — using special imaging equipment first developed for NASA. The hi-tech cameras have rendered visible sections of parchment that were previously indecipherable.

A team at Tel Aviv University is using the new images to try to piece together fragments into larger sections which might yield new information about the content of some of the scrolls. For scholars, the fragments are “the ultimate puzzle,” Pnina Shor, head of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls project, said Tuesday.

The scrolls, thought to have been written or collected by Jews who left Jerusalem for the desert in the time of the Second Temple two millennia ago, were one of the great archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. They shed important light on ancient Judaism, the birth of Christianity, and the evolution of the Bible.

Google is involved in the project as part of a broader effort to preserve world cultural heritage online. In 2011, the US web giant helped make material from the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial available on the web, and has carried out similar projects at Madrid’s Prado Museum and at several national libraries in Europe.

An IAA conservator working on scroll fragments (Photo credit: Shai Halevy/Israel Antiquities Authority)

An IAA conservator working on scroll fragments (photo credit: Shai Halevy/Israel Antiquities Authority)

On the new Dead Sea Scrolls site, surfers can search for phrases in Hebrew or English and find fragments that match, sort the fragments according to the Qumran caves where each was originally found, and view those locations on Google Maps.

“This is part of Google’s mission — to make all of the world’s information available and usable,” Yossi Matias, head of Google’s research and development center in Israel, said Tuesday.

He suggested that scholars and amateur Dead Sea Scrolls enthusiasts might be able to glean new information about the manuscripts by using the site to decipher and match scroll fragments.

“The power of open technologies, of crowdsourcing in a very strong sense — where the crowd can be the public, students, kids, scholars, anybody — it’s extremely powerful. That’s the power of taking content and making it accessible to everyone online.”

For decades, scholars were criticized for hoarding the scrolls and keeping them from the public and from each other. When the IAA’s project is completed in an estimated three years, the biggest collection of scroll fragments will be available online.

The Israel Museum, home to the most important of the complete Dead Sea Scrolls, put five of its manuscripts online in 2011, also in partnership with Google. Those scrolls include the biblical Book of Isaiah, as well as the esoteric manuscripts known as the Temple Scroll and the War Scroll.

Adolfo Roitman, curator of the scrolls at the Israel Museum, said both projects were part of a “global process in which knowledge is being democratized using technology.”

“Once the Dead Sea Scrolls were thought of as things that were concealed and kept secret, but now we are seeing a positive process in which technology is being used to make them available to everyone,” Roitman said.

An infra-red image of a section from the Book of Psalms found at Qumran. The words in the fragment's dark lower margin were rendered visible by the IAA's imaging equipment, first developed for NASA (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

An infrared image of a section from the Book of Psalms found at Qumran. The words in the fragment’s dark lower margin were rendered visible by the IAA’s imaging equipment, first developed for NASA (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)