Reading A Scroll Burned To Charcoal

The effort to read the ancient text began when researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in Jerusalem took high resolution x-rays of the En-Gedi scroll.


(Computer scientists used a ground-breaking procedure called “virtual unwrapping”)

No more than a lump of disintegrating charcoal, the scroll is so fragile that it has barely been touched since it was discovered in 1970. It was found in the holy ark of a synagogue in En-Gedi, a town on the western shore of the Dead Sea that was destroyed by fire around AD600.

Seales ran the En-Gedi images through a four step procedure. The first creates a digital map of the crinkled contours of different regions of charred parchment. The second marks where ink was used, as revealed by bright spots in the x-ray images. The computer then flattens the regions out and merges them into one complete image. In the case of the En-Gedi scroll, writing showed up in the scans because the author used an ink that contained metal, probably iron or lead.

Using the system, the US team unwrapped five pages of the ancient scroll. Though Seales does not read Hebrew, it was clear that markings on the pages were written words. To find out what they said, he sent the images back to the team in Jerusalem. When Shor replied, she said they had not only read the text, but identified it as the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew bible. “At that point we were jubilant,” Seales said. “The En-Gedi scroll is proof positive we can potentially recover whole texts from damaged material, not just a few letters or a speculative word.”

Science fiction fans read about this idea forty years ago. In his wonderful first novel Inherit the Stars, James P. Hogan wrote about something he called a "Trimagniscope:"

The scope was adjusted to generate a view that followed the change in density along the boundary layer of the selected page, producing an image of the lower section of the book only; it was as if the upper part had been removed, like a cut deck of cards... (Read more about the Trimagniscope)

The Trimagniscope went one step further than the Seales team at the University of Kentucky, in that it used pattern recognition techniques to decipher the manuscript as well.

Via The Guardian.

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