One of the world’s oldest biblical texts read for the first time

When the En-Gedi scrolls were excavated from an ancient synagogue’s Holy Ark in the 1970s, it was a bittersweet discovery for archaeologists. Though the texts provided further evidence for an ancient Jewish community in this oasis near the Dead Sea, the scrolls had been reduced to charred lumps by fire. Even the act of moving them to a research facility caused more damage. But decades later, archaeologists have read parts of one scroll for the first time. A team of scientists in Israel and the US used a sophisticated medical scanning technique, coupled with algorithmic analysis, to "unwrap" a parchment that’s more than 1,700 years old.

(credit: Science Advances)

Found in roughly the same area as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the En-Gedi scrolls were used by a Jewish community in the region between the 8th century BCE and 6th century CE. In the year 600 CE, the community and its temple were destroyed by fire. Archaeologists disagree on the exact historical provenance of the En-Gedi scrolls—carbon dating suggests fourth century, but stratigraphic evidence points to a date closer to the second. Either way, these scrolls could provide a kind of missing link between the biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the traditional biblical text of the Tanakh found in the Masoretic Text from roughly the 9th century. As the researchers put it in a paper published in Science Advances:

Dating the En-Gedi scroll to the third or fourth century CE falls near the end of the period of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls (third century BCE to second century CE) and several centuries before the medieval biblical fragments found in the Cairo Genizah, which date from the ninth century CE onward. Hence, the En-Gedi scroll provides an important extension to the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls and offers a glimpse into the earliest stages of almost 800 years of near silence in the history of the biblical text.

How to read a burned scroll with computers

But it wasn’t until University of Kentucky computer scientist Brent Seales developed a technique he calls volume cartography that archaeologists actually got that "glimpse." Seales had previously worked on a project to read fire-damaged scrolls from the library of a wealthy Roman whose home in Herculaneum was destroyed in the Pompeii eruption. He suggested that Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Pnina Shor scan the scrolls using X-ray micro-CT, which is essentially a very high-resolution CT scan of exactly the same type you might get in a hospital. Indeed, Shor explained in a press conference that her team used a medical imaging facility to produce digital scans that she sent to Seales to analyze in Kentucky.

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via Ars Technica
One of the world’s oldest biblical texts read for the first time