The Dead Sea Scrolls—the oldest known surviving biblical and extra-biblical texts in the world—are slated to be scanned with high-resolution multispectral imaging equipment and shared online, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Google announced Tuesday, when this picture was taken in an IAA lab.
The high-tech imaging of the scrolls—to be conducted with Google's research and development operation in Israel—was originally conceived as part of an IAA initiative to conserve the thousands of delicate papyrus and parchment fragments and monitor their conditions much more accurately and noninvasively.
According to the IAA, the technology will also help scholars rediscover writing and letters that have "vanished" over the years. And "since we're going to have the best possible images," said Pnina Shor, the IAA's Dead Sea Scrolls project manager, "we said, 'Why don't we take all the images, add to them all the translations, the transcriptions, the commentary and put them online?'"
—Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv, Israel
Photograph by Sebastian Scheiner, AP
This fragment of the biblical book of Deuteronomy, including a version of the Ten Commandments, is among the 30,000-odd pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls slated to be intricately imaged and posted online in 2011.
The texts form "the ultimate puzzle," said Pnina Shor, the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls project manager. "You hear 'scrolls' and you think of something big and rolled up. But we have thousands and thousands of fragments that are some 2,000 years old. A lot of this work is puzzle work, scholars piecing things together"—both physically and philosophically.
"Now hopefully we will have a lot of new readings" by scholars worldwide who wouldn't have otherwise been able to scrutinize the Dead Sea Scrolls in detail, said Shor.
The scanning project marks the first comprehensive imaging of the scrolls since 1950.
A specialist in Israel digitizes part of the Dead Sea Scrolls in an undated picture.
"We began this project as part of our conservation efforts to preserve the scrolls for future generations," said Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
"A few years ago, we were looking for ways to check ourselves and to see that we were not causing any damage to the scrolls. ... It was suggested that we use multispectral imaging, which was first invented by NASA scientists for space purposes," Shor told National Geographic News.
Photograph courtesy IAA
Dead Sea Scrolls in Living Color
The biblical book of Psalms glows purple during multispectral imaging. "When the scrolls were first photographed in the 1950s, they were photographed in infrared, which is already beyond what the eye can see," explained Pnina Shor, the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls project manager.
"Now with the spectral imaging, we go much further beyond what the eye can see," Shor said. "There are wavelengths that take you into an area where a lot of deciphering can be done."
Photograph courtesy IAA
Brush With Greatness
A preservationist works on a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls in an Israel Museum laboratory in Jerusalem (file photo).
The new, high-resolution images will eliminate the need for scholars to actually examine the original scroll fragments in person once they are posted online, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
Even so, the IAA's Pnina Shor admits there's something about experiencing the scrolls in the "flesh."
"I would always want to see the original," Shor said. "If you are working on a text, you want to see the original. But in principle, these images will be much better than the original."