Now, more than 40 years later, researchers at the University of Kentucky have provided Israeli scholars with legible text from inside the scroll — without having to unroll it. The first bits of analysis, published Wednesday in Science Advances, reveal that the 1,500-year-old En-Gedi scroll contains the book of Leviticus written in Hebrew. That makes it the oldest Pentateuchal scroll ever found in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"We never dreamed we could bring it back to life," study co-author Pnina Shor, curator at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said during an embargoed news briefing held on Tuesday.
The researchers involved in the discovery announced their initial findings in July, when the remains of the scroll were put on display in the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem. But it wasn't until Wednesday that the scientists behind the scroll-saving technology detailed their process, which they hope can be used to virtually unfurl many more "unreadable" texts.
To image the words inside the scroll, University of Kentucky scientists led by William Brent Seales started with a simple digital scan of the charred object. But because of the topography of an old, rolled-up scroll, the next steps are more complicated.
"The magic — or the secret sauce, if you will — it’s not in the scanning alone," he told reporters on Tuesday. "Imaging alone is almost never a complete solution, because scrolls are scrolled. The layers with the writing on them are rolled up, they’re stacked, they’re crushed, they’re fused. It’s totally unpredictable, and that structure has to be untangled no matter what the imaging method."
That's where Seales's "virtual unwrapping" software comes in. The software is designed to first detect the individual pages based on their expected geometry, then "texture" it, or look for changes in brightness on the surfaces identified as pages. Dense areas — ones covered in ink, for example — appear brighter on the scan. Then the software flattens the rolled-up text, showing the words as they would appear on a two-dimensional surface.
"We never needed physical access to the scroll," Seales boasted on Tuesday. When the software finished analyzing its first sections of text, he was able to see them long before the scientists who actually had the scroll on hand in Israel.
When Shor and the rest of her lab saw the processed images, she said, she "almost dropped off the chair."
"You can't imagine the joy in the lab," she said.
Not all of the lines of text were recovered. The fire that destroyed En-Gedi engulfed the outer edges of the scroll and burned some outer layers all the way through, so that certain spots are missing on every page. But there was enough text for Hebrew University's Michael Segal to identify multiple verses from the book of Leviticus.
Aside from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain hundreds of religious texts and date to around 400 B.C., the En-Gedi text is the oldest Hebrew biblical tome ever found.
"I think we can safely say that since the completion of the publication of the corpus of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the En-Gedi Leviticus scroll is the most extensive and significant biblical text from antiquity that has come to light," Segal said.
Shor added that she found the text itself to be rather symbolic: The opening chapters of Leviticus speak of burned religious offerings, and she and her colleagues were puzzling out the meaning of scrolls left behind when a community burned to the ground. "The burned offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts," one preserved passage reads. "The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar."
"I think it symbolizes it all very nicely," Shor said.
Crumbling pages may soon be no match for modern technology: Earlier this month, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a new imaging method that allows them to virtually pierce the first few pages of delicate books and analyze their text. And Seales is eager to apply his software to other ancient scrolls.
"Damage and decay is the natural order of things, but you can see that sometimes you can absolutely pull a text back from the brink of loss," Seales said.