A badly charred ancient Hebrew scroll that hasn’t been read in more than 1,500 years has been brought back to life thanks to modern technology, according to a newly published paper in the journal Science Advances. Using a computer program, scientists for the first time have digitally unrolled and read the brittle En-Gedi scroll without even touching it, and what they found written inside was extraordinary.

In 1970, Israeli archaeologists excavating an ancient synagogue near the village of En-Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea discovered the oldest Hebrew scroll outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written on parchment made of animal skin, the manuscript had resided in an ark when a fire consumed the village around 600 A.D. By the time archaeologists found it more than a millennium later, the badly burnt En-Gedi scroll looked like just a lump of charcoal.

Curious scholars wondered what was written on the extremely fragile manuscript, but the traditional approach of unrolling a scroll and pressing it flat in order to duplicate text was not an option for the carbonized relic. In fact, no technology existed in 1970 to examine the scroll’s contents without destroying the artifact itself. So the En-Gedi scroll, which carbon-14 measurements dated to the third and fourth century A.D., sat untouched with its contents remaining a secret.

The charred scroll from En-Gedi. (Credit: The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, IAA. Photo: S. Halevi)
The charred scroll from En-Gedi. (Credit: The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, IAA. Photo: S. Halevi)

Decades later, however, advances in technology finally gave scientists a chance to peek inside the severely charred scroll. Israeli researchers heard about a new computer imaging program, called Volume Cartography, developed by University of Kentucky computer scientist W. Brent Seales that could “virtually unwrap” an ancient scroll and allow researchers to read the text inside.

Although skeptical it would come to any fruition, Pnina Shor, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority, asked for the En-Gedi scroll to be scanned by a micro-computed tomography machine normally used for cancer analysis. The high-resolution scan of the En-Gedi scroll was then sent from Israel to Kentucky for examination. Without ever seeing the physical artifact, Seales and his research team processed the scans to produce flattened-out pictures of the layers inside the ancient scroll, converting a 3-D object into an unfurled 2-D sheet.

After the processing, whole verses of text on five complete wraps of the scroll became apparent, and the quality of the metallic ink was good enough to allow serious textual criticism. “The discovery of the text in the En-Gedi scroll absolutely astonished us,” Shor said at a teleconference announcing the findings. “It was certainly a shot in the dark.”

“We were amazed at the quality of the images since much of the text is as readable, or as close to as readable, as actual unharmed Dead Sea Scrolls,” added Michael Segal, a biblical studies professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped to analyze the text.

The scroll from En-Gedi rendered from the micro-CT scan. (Credit: B. Seales)
The scroll from En-Gedi rendered from the micro-CT scan. (Credit: B. Seales)

What the scholars found inside the En-Gedi scroll was the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, a Bible passage that ironically references burnt offerings. As vowels had yet to be developed until the ninth century, the text is all consonants. Scholars say the writing is remarkable because, unlike even the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is identical to the Masoretic Text, the authoritative version of Hebrew Bible. An analysis of the style of the ancient script suggests the scroll could be even older than previously thought and written in either the second half of the first century A.D. or the beginning of the second century A.D., which makes it the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book ever found in a synagogue’s ark.

“I think we can safely say that since the completion of the publication of the Corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls about a decade ago under the editorship of Emanuel Tov, the En-Gedi Leviticus scroll is the most extensive and significant biblical text from antiquity that has come to light,” Segal said.

The recovered script came from the inner-most layers of the scroll, which was rolled with the beginning on the inside, that were the most protected from the fire. The research team hopes the same process will allow them to read more of the scroll in the coming months. Scholars hope this breakthrough in digitally analyzing brittle archaeological objects will also allow them to read other artifacts from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Seales is eager to apply the technological breakthrough to examine scrolls recovered from Herculaneum, the ancient Roman town buried after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

“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. “The En-Gedi scroll is proof positive that we can potentially recover the whole text from damaged material, not just a few letters or a speculative word.”

Seales says his software, which will become open-source after funding from the National Science Foundation ends next year, could also be of interest to security and intelligence agencies looking to non-invasively extract information from documents. “That’s what we’re doing, and we’re doing it at a very high resolution, so anything that requires the resolution that goes down to microns in the intelligence world will probably be interested in this technique.”