Scrolling through the Dead Sea Scrolls online

Although you may have finished unwrapping all your material presents by now, there are some new gifts of a more spiritual nature still to be opened online.

Launched just before Christmas, the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library is a growing repository of high-resolution images of the 2,000-year-old documents previously only available to a select group of scholars. These works, some of which form the basis for the foundation of Judaism and Christianity, are more revealing than anything previously offered online—or off—because they will contain some new photographs that illuminate text that has not been read by human eyes for more than two millennia.

The Dead Sea Scrolls is a collection of more than 900 different texts discovered in a series of 11 caves in the desert near Qumran in the mid 1940s and 1950s. Now in tens of thousands of fragments, some smaller than a dime, the ancient writings are composed in Greek, Aramaic and ancient Hebrew. Most of the scrolls were secreted away in caves constructed as libraries (archaeologists found broken shelves in some of the spaces).

Among the numerous documents are multiple copies of some texts and non-religious works such as rules for community behavior. But the Scrolls are best known for containing nearly the entire text of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament. One of the most astounding works, for example, is one of the oldest known copies of the Ten Commandments. (The only other copy of the commandments dating from around the same era is the Nash Papyrus, which is 50 to 100 years older than the scroll copy, but does not contain all 10 commandments and is in extremely poor condition.)

What's new about these ancient documents is that in addition to high-resolution renderings of older negatives, for the first time illegible parts of texts are being revealed thanks to a relatively new imaging technique known as multispectral or hyperspectral photography. Damaged by animals, insects, and the ravages of time, the parchment the scrolls were written on thin animal skins and have darkened in many areas, making them illegible.

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However, using a 39-megapixel, computer-controlled camera system that can take photographs at in the ultraviolet, infrared and visible spectra, dozens of images of a fragment can be taken at different reflective wavelengths. It allows the camera's sensor to see words that have heretofore been invisible to the naked eye. The first of these images are now being added to the Dead Sea Scrolls site as part of an ongoing project.

It's the first time scholars will be able to see the missing text and you can witness it too at the Web site. There are intriguing copies of texts such as a section of the Book of Genesis. Online visitors can zoom in on an infrared image of the original copy on parchment and see what other documents were found in the same cave. There are featured documents, such as the book of Psalms, as well as a growing archive of images and historical information. Still to come are various corresponding translations and additional tools for scholars looking to interpret what are still unidentified texts. Hopefully, the imaging technology will help researchers finally decipher these remaining mysterious scrolls.

That isn't likely to happen immediately, however. According to the curator and head of the Dead Sea Scrolls projects at the IAA, Pnina Shor, dozens of photos taken at different wavelengths of each fragment will be made. And since the IAA collection has more than 100,000 fragments, it will be years before the work is finished.

In the meantime, there are other opportunities to see some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What isn't commonly known is that at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem the IAA possesses most but not all of what was discovered in the caves near the Dead Sea. Some fragments are held by universities and are even in private hands, while one of the most curious documents, the Copper Scroll, is in the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman. Some of the most well-preserved examples of the scrolls are housed at a separate museum, the Shrine of the Book in Israel. Those texts (digitized using a different photographic system) are also available for viewing at a separate site, the Israel Museum's Digital Dead Sea Scrolls site.

In the U.S., a traveling exhibition of some of the IAA scrolls is now available to the public. You can see the show, the Dead Sea Scrolls: Like and Faith in Ancient Times, at the Cincinnati Museum until mid April.

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