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Science AMA Series: We are Brent, Michael, and Seth and yesterday we published our analysis of the En-Gedi Sea Scrolls. We created a technology that virtually unwrapped and read an ancient scroll - Ask us anything!
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Hi reddit! Our team has completed a digital analysis of the extremely fragile En-Gedi scroll — the oldest Pentateuchal scroll in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls — revealing the ink-based writing hidden on its untouchable, disintegrating sheets, without ever opening it. While prior research has successfully identified text within ancient artifacts, the En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, animal skin-based scroll to be virtually unrolled and non-invasively read line by line. The series of digitization techniques we employed demonstrates that it is possible to “see” ink-based text within an extremely fragile scroll while avoiding the need for physical handling. The traditional approach of unrolling a scroll and pressing it flat in order to duplicate text is not an option for splintering manuscripts like the En-Gedi scroll, which has been burned and crushed into lumps of charcoal. We began by performing a volumetric scan of the scroll using X-ray microtomography, followed by segmentation, which digitally creates a “page” containing the writing. We pieced together over 100 such scanned segments of the scroll by hand. Further manipulation of the digitized scroll involved using texturing and flattening techniques, and finally, virtual unwrapping to unveil the text written on its pages. At last, we were able to “see” the text on five complete wraps of the En-Gedi scroll, and the resulting image is one of two distinct columns of Hebrew writing that contain legible and countable lines, words, letters, and spacing. Further analysis revealed the scroll’s writings to be the book of Leviticus, which makes it the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book ever found in a synagogue’s Holy Ark. This virtual unlocking of the En-Gedi scroll paves the way for further scholarly analysis of this and other text buried in delicate, damaged materials. Our research was published yesterday in Science Advances, the open-access journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Here is our article: “From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi” Brent Seales, professor and chairman in the department of computer science at the University of Kentucky Michael Segal, the Otsuki Professor of Biblical Studies and head of the School of Philosophy and Religions at Hebrew University of Jerusalem Seth Parker is the Project Manager on the Scrolls Project, directly overseeing software development by the team’s 8 student developers. He’s also a big fan of Whit Stillman and Ross McElwee. We’ll be back at 11 am EST (8 am PST, 4 pm UC) to answer your questions, ask us anything!