More than four decades ago, an archaeologist discovered a scroll in the ruins of an ancient settlement built near the Dead Sea. Found inside a holy ark, the fragile document was so badly burned that the scientist decided not to risk unrolling it, lest it crumble to pieces. Kept safe in storage ever since, the Ein Gedi scroll has held on to its secrets—until now.
This week a computer scientist announced that his team found a way to unroll the scroll virtually. Working off x-ray scans of the artifact, specialized software detected the layers of parchment and digitally unwound them, revealing for the first time Hebrew characters written on the scroll about 1,500 years ago.
“I’ve actually never seen the actual scroll,” says Brent Seales, a professor at the University of Kentucky. “For me, that’s a testament to the power of the digital age.”
His interest in damaged texts began years ago with a cache of old Roman scrolls unearthed at what had once been the resort town of Herculaneum. Buried during the infamous A.D. 79 Vesuvius eruption, the Herculaneum scrolls seemed like little more than cylinders of charcoal. To try and take a deeper look, Seales and his colleagues bombarded the relics with x-rays from a micro-CT scanner—a device similar to the computerized tomography scanners hospitals use to see inside human bodies, but much more powerful.
“It’s a bit expensive and time-consuming to do, but you’re able to see inside an object without destroying it,” says James Miles, a graduate student at the University of Southampton and director of Archaeovision, a company that scans ancient objects. “You can’t do this any other way.”
To suss out the contours of rolled papyri, Seales wrote a computer program. He likens the process to cartography: the density data from a micro-CT scan is a whole world of chaotic shapes and forms, and the turns of the papyri are like edges of continents that his algorithms can sketch. Sadly, his x-rays and algorithms proved blind to the carbon-based ink on the Roman scrolls, which was too similar to the carbonized papyri to be distinguished.. . .