Dead Sea Scrolls to be digitized and put online

By Joel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 4:06 PM

JERUSALEM - The Israel Antiquities Authority and Google announced Tuesday that they are collaborating to produce digitized images of the entire collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls and put them on the Internet, making the archaeological treasure available to anyone with the click of a mouse.

The joint project is the latest stage of gradually widening access to the 2,000-year-old documents, once available to only a restricted group of scholars but made more accessible in recent decades through facsimile editions and published studies. Organizers say the first images will be online in a few months.

The project marries "one of the most important finds of the previous century with the most advanced technology of the next century," said Pnina Shor, the director of the project at the Antiquities Authority. "We are putting together the past with the future in order to share it."

The scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s and the 1950s in caves east of Jerusalem, near the ruins of Qumran on the Dead Sea. Scholars say the manuscripts, written between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D., provide important insights into the history of Judaism and early Christianity. They include the earliest known copies of books of the Hebrew Bible.

Shor said the approximately 30,000 scroll fragments, making up 900 documents, would be digitally photographed using infrared and multi-spectral imaging, producing high-resolution, enlargeable images of the original scrolls whose clarity would make it possible to better decipher them.

The multi-spectral photography, based on techniques developed at NASA, was intended to detect physical changes in the scrolls - which are mostly made of parchment, though some are papyrus - and to track their deterioration for preservation purposes, Shor said. But it has also revealed or improved the legibility of parts of the text that have faded and discolored with age and are not visible to the naked eye.

The scrolls, several of which are on permanent display here at the Israel Museum, were last photographed in their entirety in the 1950s, and Shor said making them available online would preclude the need to expose them to light, heat and humidity and thus save them from further deterioration.

Yossi Matias, director of Google Israel's research and development center, said the company had been involved in digitizing major libraries in Europe, as well as collections at the Prado Museum in Madrid and Iraq's National Museum. The Dead Sea Scrolls project, he said, would "enrich and preserve an important and meaningful part of world heritage" by making it universally accessible.

The online presentation of the scrolls will also include translations, transcriptions and a bibliography that will enable users to search relevant material in a number of languages and formats, a project announcement said.

Viewers will be able to examine scroll fragments as part of a restored document or in isolation, enabling researchers and scholars to put forward new readings and interpretations of the texts without having to travel to Israel to view the original material, Shor said.

"It opens whole new fields of research and facilitates more scholarly work," she added, predicting that the enhanced access to the ancient documents "should lead to new insights into the world of the scrolls."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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