Scientists have for the first time been able to decipher Biblical verses from a badly burned scroll that is at least 1,500 years old, thanks to a high resolution scanning and ‘virtual unwrapping tool’.
The scroll was discovered in 1970 inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue in Israel but at some point earlier had been badly burned.
It turned out that part of this scroll is from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, written in Hebrew, and dated by C14 analysis (a form of radiometric dating used to determine the age of organic remains in ancient objects) to the late sixth century CE.
To date, this is the most ancient scroll from the five books of the Hebrew Bible to be found since the Dead Sea scrolls, most of which are ascribed to the end of the Second Temple period (first century BCE – first century CE).
The Ein Gedi scroll was scanned with a micro-computed tomography machine from Skyscan. Data from the scan is the sole basis of Seales’ software analysis.
The scanning process was X-ray-based and completely non-invasive as the scroll is badly damaged from fire, and can not be physically opened.
The results come a software prototype designed to do “virtual unwrapping” of surfaces from within volumetric scans.
This unwrapping process allowed the visualisation of evidence of writing on a surface from within a scanned volume.
Because the surfaces of the object being scanned are not flat like a book – rather they are rolled up as a scroll – the visualisation of the surface is a complex process.
“I have been using the word ‘surface’ to refer to the page of biblical text we have revealed. But this is a term of geometry, not of precise position,” said Brent Seales, professor at University of Kentucky.
“The page actually comes from a layer buried deep within the many wraps of the scroll body, and is possible to view it only through the remarkable results of our software, which implements the research idea of ‘virtual unwrapping’,” Seales said.
This is the first time in any archaeological excavation that a Torah scroll was found in a synagogue, particularly inside a Holy Ark, researchers said.
The data scan was processed in order to enhance the ability to see the structures in the scan – the surface of the material, and the ink that was used on that material.
The data scan was then carefully partitioned into the surfaces on which there was writing. The result was a 3D surface that was positioned exactly in the data volume where there was evidence of surfaces and writing.
The completed surface was rendered as a 3D surface with the texture (markings, structure and ink evidence) from its precise position in the original data scan. The rendering step produced a flattened version of the 3D surface texture.