Turned to charcoal when the synagogue in which it was housed burnt down around 1,500 years ago, the contents of the En-Gedi scroll were thought long lost to history. But in an astonishing new development, researchers have used a new technique to “virtually unwrap” the scroll and read what was first penned in 100 CE.
Using CT scans normally reserved for biological specimens, archaeologists in Israel first put the scroll into the machine on a bit of a whim, before sending the results over to computer scientist Brent Seales at the University of Kentucky.
Seales took the scans of the scroll layer by layer, and then picked out the marks where the ink was used, followed by flattening each leaf and then stitching them all together. By doing so, he was able to reveal the Hebrew script on the pages, which was then translated to reveal passages from the book of Leviticus, making it the earliest copy ever found of an Old Testament Bible scripture.
The scroll was initially discovered in 1970 as archaeologists were excavating the remains of the En-Gedi synagogue, thought to have been destroyed when the town on the western shore of the Dead Sea (near the Qumran Caves that contained the famous Dead Sea scrolls) was burnt down in 600 CE.
What remained of the scroll was little more than a chunk of charcoal, so fragile that it had hardly been moved since being found for fear of it disintegrating. Now, its secrets and historical importance have finally been revealed, as reported in the journal Science Advances.
“We were amazed at the quality of the images,” said Michael Segal, head of the School of Philosophy and Religions at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Much of the text is as readable, or close to as readable as actual unharmed Dead Sea Scrolls or high resolution photographs of them.”
The scroll contains 35 lines of text; out of these, 18 were preserved, with the other 17 being reconstructed. The ancient Hebrew in which it was written contained only consonants, as vowels were yet to be developed.
What is most striking about the text, however, is that it is identical to medieval writings of Leviticus. “We were immediately struck by the fact that in these passages, the En-Gedi Leviticus scroll is identical in all of its details both regarding its letter and section division to what we call the Masoretic text, the authoritative Jewish text until today,” said Segal. This means that in over 2,000 years, incredibly, the passages have not changed one bit.
To help out archaeologists hoping the new technique could be used to read other damaged ancient scrolls, the researchers plan on making the suit of software programs, called Volume Cartography, open access. “We are releasing all our data for the scroll from En-Gedi: the scans, our geometric analysis, the final texture,” said Seales. “We think that the scholarly community will have interest in the data and the process as well as our results.”
This will be of great interest to other researchers keen to unwrap other ancient scrolls that are also burnt or simply too delicate to unroll. Top of the list will be the 300 Roman scrolls unearthed in a library from Herculaneum, destroyed when Vesuvius erupted 2,000 years ago.