Researchers at the University of Kentucky have uncovered a new way to read the text off of any sort of ancient scroll without having to open it. The process is called “virtual unwrapping” which is a 3D digital analysis of an X-ray scan.

Found in the year 1970 in a burned down synagogue by the western shore of the Dead Sea the Ein Gedi scroll is one of the oldest Hebrew scrolls and is from one of the first five books of the bible, Leviticus.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that, “The process of reading the En-Gedi scroll began with the Dead Sea Scrolls Projects in Israel. Pnina Shor, curator and head of the projects at the Israel Antiquities Authority, and her colleagues did a micro-CT scan (a 3D X-ray imaging process) of the carbonized scroll to confirm that there was ink on each layer of the scroll. Having determined that there was ink on each layer — and, therefore, that there was actually something to read in the scroll — the researchers in Israel sent their scans to Kentucky.”

With the help of the software programs he developed W. Brent Seales, who is professor and chair of the UK College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, was able to refine the images several times and what emerged was clear and legible script. The Washington Post reported that “the software is designed to first detect the individual pages based on their expected geometry, then “texture” it, or look for changes in brightness on the surfaces identified as pages. Dense areas — ones covered in ink, for example — appear brighter on the scan. Then the software flattens the rolled-up text, showing the words as they would appear on a two-dimensional surface.”

A text unfurled. (Science Advances, B. Seales et al 2016)

“The text revealed today from the Ein Gedi scroll was possible only because of the collaboration of many different people and technologies,” said Seales. “The last step of virtual unwrapping, done at the University of Kentucky through the hard work of a team of talented students, is especially satisfying because it has produced readable, identifiable, biblical text from a scroll thought to be beyond rescue,” he continued.

It is the first time that researchers have been able to read text off of any sort of ancient scroll without having to physically open it and they hope that they can use this same process and technology to uncover and read the text from other ancient documents that are to fragile to be unwrapped.

Here is the text from the scroll. (Leviticus 1:1-8).

“The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the Lord, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock.  If the offering is a burnt-offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar.

The Washington Post reported Pnina Shor found the text to be rather symbolic. Why? Because the beginning of Leviticus speaks of burned religious offerings. “The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts,” reads part of the text. “I think it symbolizes it all very nicely,” Shor said.

The fact that these scientists and researchers were able to uncover the text from a scroll without opening it is truly amazing and revolutionary. Imagine all the ancient text that we can now possibly be able to read because of this process.

“Damage and decay is the natural order of things, but you can see that sometimes you can absolutely pull a text back from the brink of loss,” Seales said.

(H/T – The Washington Post)

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