Ancient Hebrew scroll read without unrolling

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A rare piece of burnt parchment from En-Gedi. Modern scanning and digital manipulation techniques were able to read its text.
Credit: Eddie Gerald / Getty Images

An ancient charred scroll has been read without being unrolled – and it’s filled with the first verses from the Book of Leviticus.

Researchers in the US and Israel scanned the extreme fragile En-Gadi scroll using a high-resolution 3-D microscopy technique that uses X-rays and some nifty computer manipulation to “see” the text within.

The work and scroll’s writings were published in Science Advances.

It’s a discovery that’s been a long time coming. Archaeologists in 1970 uncovered En-Gadi, a site west of the Dead Sea which was once home to a large Jewish community from the eighth century BCE until it was destroyed by fire around 600 CE.

Within, they discovered what appeared to be multiple charred parchment scroll fragments, the oldest after the Dead Sea Scrolls. But these were burnt and crushed and generally in bad shape, so were kept as-is by the Israel Antiquities Authority for four decades.

Then along came the University of Kentucky’s William Seales and colleagues. They thought they might be able to read text on a scroll – if it did indeed contain writing – using X-ray microtomography (or micro-CT).

Micro-CT was invented in the 1980s and builds a 3-D representation of an object by taking X-ray “slices” through it. (A larger version is used in hospitals.)

Over the years, the technology has become sensitive enough pick up stuff such as ink and paint. 

A study earlier this year used micro-CT to read etching on the inside of a locket. Could it work on burnt scrolls?

First, the researchers didn’t even know if the scrolls contained any text – they could have been blank for all they know. So they took one scroll and after several calibration scans, picked up what they thought was probably ink.

It was denser than its surrounds so they suspect it contained a metal, such as iron or lead.

After scanning the scroll using a micro-CT scanner from Israeli company Merkel Technologies came the painstaking task of putting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. The team pieced together more than 100 segments by hand.

Digital manipulation adjusted the virtual scroll’s texture and flattened it so the text was legible.

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The deciphered and original text of what is believed to be a 1,500-year-old copy of the beginning of the Book of Leviticus.
Credit: GALI TIBBON / AFP / Getty Images

On one stretch they could read 35 lines, all from the Book of Leviticus. Some translated passages included, “without blemish he shall offer; to the entrance of the tent of meeting, he shall bring” and the apt “your offering. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, a male”.

The scroll, they write, “offer a glimpse into the earliest stages of almost 800 years of near silence in the history of the biblical text”.

And with more refinement, they say the technique could unlock other fragile artefacts and “reach and retrieve text from the brink of oblivion”.

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