Emerging Display Technologies

Using 3-D Virtual Technology to Unwrap a 1,500-Year-Old Scroll

22 September 2016

A computer science professor and his team of researchers have just unlocked writings in the ancient En-Gedi scroll—the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively, through a high-tech process called virtual unwrapping.

Completed virtual unwrapping for the En-Gedi scroll. (Image Credit: Brent Seales) Completed virtual unwrapping for the En-Gedi scroll. (Image Credit: Brent Seales) Thanks to technology, the researchers have revealed the scroll to be the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book—Leviticus—ever found in a Holy Ark.

University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seales and the team discovered and restored text on five complete wraps of the animal skin scroll, which will most likely never be physically opened for inspection. They used data from high-resolution scanning, which represents the internal structure of the 3-D object, to digitally segment, texture and flatten the scroll.

"This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay," said Seales. "There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets—we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.

The group will now release all of its data for the scroll from En-Gedi, including the scans, geometric analysis and the final texture.

“We think that the scholarly community will have interest in the data and the process, as well as our results," he said.

Last year, Seales and his team revealed the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus in the scroll, which is at least 1,500 years old and was badly burned at some point. As a result of its charred condition, it was not possible to either preserve or decipher it.

However high-resolution scanning and virtual unwrapping has now allowed Seales to recover substantial ink-based text at such high quality that Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholars can now conduct critical textual analysis.

"With the aid of the amazing tomography technology, we are now able to zero in on the early history of the biblical text, as the En-Gedi scroll has been dated to the first centuries of the common era," said Hebrew University's Emanuel Tov, co-author and leading scholar on textual criticism of Hebrew and Greek bibles. Hebrew University's Michael Segal also worked with Tov on the textual criticism.

The scroll was discovered in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at En Gedi in Israel.

“The discovery of text in the En-Gedi scroll absolutely astonished us; we were certain it was a shot in the dark, but the most advanced technologies have brought this cultural treasure back to life," said co-author Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls Project. "Now, in addition to preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls for future generations, we can bequeath part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year-old synagogue!”

The above video details the 3-D scanning technology that made this revelation possible.

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