Ancient burned Hebrew scroll reveals its secrets

The contents of an ancient burned Hebrew scroll have been deciphered for the first time thanks to state-of-the-art 3D scanning and digital imaging software.

The rare parchment scroll, which was discovered 45 years ago in Ein Gedi, Israel, was completely burned around 1,500 years ago, according to archaeologists.  Originally located inside the Holy Ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea, the scroll has puzzled archaeologists for decades, prompting the deployment of sophisticated technology to decipher the document.

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The Israel Antiquities Authority worked with Israeli imaging specialist Merkel Technologies, which performed high-resolution 3D scanning of the scroll. Researchers then sent their findings to Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky who developed digital imaging software to virtually “unroll” and visualize the text, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

After a year of high-tech research, scientists were able to decipher the first 8 verses of the Book of Leviticus.

Scroll fragment as it was delivered to The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Scroll fragment as it was delivered to The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center, Israel Antiquities Authority. (IAA/Shai Halevi)

“We were ecstatic when we saw this,” Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, told “The chances of getting something out of these lumps of charcoal seemed impossible.”

Shor added that the scroll’s secrets are being revealed at a time of great significance in the Jewish calendar, just before the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. “It’s very symbolic,” she said.

This is also the first time in any archaeological excavation that a Torah scroll was discovered in a synagogue, particularly inside a Holy Ark, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Experts say that the Ein Gedi parchment is the most ancient scroll from the five books of the Hebrew bible to be found since the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956.

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“The deciphering of the scroll, which was a puzzle for us for 45 years, is very exciting,” said Sefi Porath, who discovered the scroll in 1970, in a statement. Ein Gedi, he explained, was a Jewish village in the Byzantine period between the fourth and seventh centuries and had a synagogue with an elaborate mosaic floor and Holy Ark.

Archaeologists have no information about the fire that destroyed the synagogue, but have speculated that it was destroyed by Bedouin raiders or as a result of conflict with the Byzantine government.

“The settlement was completely burnt to the ground, and none of its inhabitants ever returned to reside there again, or to pick through the ruins in order to salvage valuable property,” said Porath, in the statement.

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