Dead Sea Scrolls project will use latest tech to solve ‘ultimate jigsaw’

Ambitious collaboration aims to make sense of 20,000 fragments of 2,000-year-old texts that have baffled researchers for decades

Dead Sea Scroll fragments -- from the conservation table to the virtual table (Shai Halevi, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)

Israel on Tuesday announced an ambitious new project aimed at finally piecing together some of the thousands of fragments of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls that have mystified experts since their discovery in the 1940s and 1950s.

The $1.75 million project aims to utilize the latest digital tools to help researchers identify connections between fragments, the Israel Antiquities Authority said. It also involves unprecedented cooperation between key scholars, computer science experts, and archives in Israel and overseas.

Ultimately, said the IAA, the aim is to publish a new generation of digital editions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, “rich in information and updatable” on the basis of the evolving research and technical advances.

Some 16,000 of an estimated 20,000 fragments have been digitally imaged to date, Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority, told the Mail website on Tuesday, with scientists constantly developing improved tools to piece together them together. “It is the ultimate jigsaw puzzle.”

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu examine the Dead Sea Scrolls, during Obama’s visit to Israel in March 2013. (photo by: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

The IAA hailed what it described as “a new collaborative research partnership” to advance research and understanding of “one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.”

Noting that the conservation laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem looks after thousands of the approximately 2000-year-old scrolls fragments, discovered almost 70 years ago, it said latest technological developments would allow “more innovative analyses and insights into these ancient manuscripts.”

The new collaborative project is being funded to the tune 1.6 million euros (some $1.75 million) by the Deutsch-Israelische-Projektförderung (DIP). It will see cooperation involving the IAA and the universities of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Göttingen in Germany. Databases and resources will be linked between the Qumran-Lexicon-project at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library of the IAA to create “an enhanced hands-on virtual workspace that will allow scholars around the world to work together simultaneously,” the IAA said, “as well as a new platform for collaborative production and publication of Dead Sea Scrolls editions.

A worker of the Israel Antiquities Authority points to a spectral image photograph of fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. December 18, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The new project comes two years after the IAA launched an upgraded online archive of the Dead Sea Scrolls, enabling web users to view thousands of high-quality images of the ancient texts along with explanations and translations into various languages.

The enhanced new website is the second incarnation of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library and has over 10,000 photographs of the ancient texts that were found in a series of caves at Qumran in the Judean Desert in the 1940s and 1950s.

For the site, images were rendered using multispectral photographic methods that reproduce the documents in exceptionally high quality. The site — available in English, German, Arabic, and Hebrew versions — also provides commentary and explanations on some of the more famous scrolls including a book of Exodus written in paleo-Hebrew script, the books of Samuel, the Temple Scroll, Songs of Shabbat Sacrifice, and New Jerusalem.

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.

There are some 900 texts that are kept in a specially controlled dry environment to simulate the desert conditions in which they survived for thousands of years.

Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest known surviving biblical manuscripts dated between 150 BCE and 70 CE, on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
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