Google to bring Dead Sea Scrolls online
(AP) (AP) – Oct 19, 2010— The Dead Sea Scrolls,
among the world's most important, mysterious and tightly restricted
archaeological treasures, are about to get Googled.
The technology giant and Israel announced
Tuesday that they are teaming up to give
researchers and the public the first
comprehensive and searchable database of the
scrolls — a 2,000-year-old collection of
Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek documents that
shed light on Judaism during biblical times
and the origins of Christianity. For years,
experts have complained that access to the
scrolls has been too limited.
Once the images are up, anyone will be able
to peruse exact copies of the original
scrolls as well as an English translation of
the text on their computer — for free.
Officials said the collection, expected to
be available within months, will feature
sections that have been made more legible
thanks to high-tech infrared technology.
"We are putting together the past and the
future in order to enable all of us to share
it," said Pnina Shor, an official with
Israel's Antiquities Authority.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the
late 1940s in caves in the Judean Desert and
are considered one of the greatest finds of
the last century.
After the initial discovery, tens of
thousands of fragments were found in 11
caves nearby. Some 30,000 of these have been
photographed by the antiquities authority,
along with the earlier finds. Together, they
make up more than 900 manuscripts.
For decades, access to 500 scrolls was
limited to a small group of scholar-editors
with exclusive authorization from Israel to
assemble the jigsaw puzzle of fragments, and
to translate and publish them. That changed
in the early 1990s when much of the
previously unpublished text was brought out
in book form.
But even now, access for researchers is
largely restricted at the Israel Museum in
Jerusalem, where the originals are preserved
in a dark, temperature-controlled room.
Shor said scholars must receive permission
to view the scrolls from the authority,
which receives about one request a month.
Most are given access, but because no more
than two people are allowed into the viewing
room at once, scheduling conflicts arise.
Researchers are permitted three hours with
only the section they have requested to view
placed behind glass.
Putting the scroll online will give scholars
unlimited time with the pieces of parchment
and may lead to new hypotheses, Shor said.
"This is the ultimate puzzle that people can
now rearrange and come up with new
interpretations," she said.
Scholars already can access the text of the
scrolls in 39 volumes along with photographs
of the originals, but critics say the books
are expensive and cumbersome. Shor said the
new pictures — photographed using
cutting-edge technology — are clearer than
The refined images were shot with a
high-tech infrared camera NASA uses for
space imaging. It helped uncover sections of
the scrolls that have faded over the
centuries and became indecipherable.
If the images uploaded prove to be of better
quality than the original, scholars may rely
on these instead of traveling to Jerusalem
to see the scrolls themselves, said Rachel
Elior, a professor of Jewish thought at
Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
"The more accessible the fragments are the
better. Any new line, any new letter, any
better reading is a great happiness for
scholars in this field," she said.
The new partnership is part of a drive by
Google to have historical artifacts
catalogued online, along with any other
"There are artifacts in boxes, in museum
basements. We ask ourselves how much this
stuff is available on the Internet. The
answer is not a lot, and not enough," said
Yossi Matias, an official from
Google has worked to upload old books from
European universities and pictures of
archaeological finds from Iraq's national
university. This project is different,
Matias said, because access to the scrolls
may spur new interpretations of the highly
debated text and because the scrolls have a
more universal appeal.
For the last 18 years, segments of the
scrolls have been publicly displayed in
museums around the world. At a recent
exhibit in St. Paul, Minn., 15 fragments
Shor said a typical 3-month exhibit in the
U.S. draws 250,000 people, illustrating just
how much the scrolls have fascinated people.
"From the minute all of this will go online,
there will be no need to expose the scroll
anymore," Shor said. "Anyone in his office
or on his couch will be able to click and
see any scroll fragment or manuscript that
Much mystery continues to surround the
scrolls. No one knows who copied these
ancient texts or how they got there. The
scrolls include parts of the Hebrew Bible as
well as treatises on communal living and
Over the years, the texts have sparked
heated debates among researchers over their
Some believe the Essenes, a monastic sect
seen by some as a link to early
Christianity, hid the scrolls during the
Jewish revolt of the first century A.D.
Others believe they were written in
Jerusalem and stashed in caves at Qumran by
Jewish refugees fleeing the Roman conquest
of the city, also in the first century.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All
(Reuters) - Researchers in Israel say they
have developed a computer programme that can
decipher previously unreadable ancient texts
and possibly lead the way to a Google-like
search engine for historical documents.
uses a pattern recognition algorithm similar
to those law enforcement agencies have
adopted to identify and compare
But in this
case, the programme identifies letters,
words and even handwriting styles, saving
historians and liturgists hours of sitting
and studying each manuscript.
recognising such patterns, the computer can
recreate with high accuracy portions of
texts that faded over time or even those
written over by later scribes, said Itay
Bar-Yosef, one of the researchers from
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
texts the programme analyses, the smarter
and more accurate it gets," Bar-Yosef said.
works with digital copies of the texts,
assigning number values to each pixel of
writing depending on how dark it is. It
separates the writing from the background
and then identifies individual lines,
letters and words.
analyses the handwriting and writing style,
so it can "fill in the blanks" of smeared or
faded characters that are otherwise
indiscernible, Bar-Yosef said.
The team has
focussed their work on ancient Hebrew texts,
but they say it can be used with other
languages, as well.
published its work, which is being further
developed, most recently in the academic
journal Pattern Recognition due out in
December but already available online.
for all academics could be ready in two
years, Bar-Yosef said.
libraries across the world move to digitise
their collections, they say the programme
can drive an engine to search
instantaneously any digital database of
an expert in ancient prayer texts who works
with Bar-Yosef's team of computer
scientists, said that with the help of the
programme, years of research could be done
within a matter of minutes.
texts have been digitised, it will manage to
combine fragments of books that have been
scattered all over the world," Ehrlich said.