Almost 50 years ago, a badly damaged ancient scroll was found in a synagogue on the Dead Sea.

The charred parchment was in such a bad state it couldn’t be read, but it was kept safe. Now computer scientists from the University of Kentucky have developed a technology that can read the damaged scroll, publishing their findings in the journal Science.

Charred Biblical Scroll
Image: Flickr

Software produces digital image of previously unreadable scroll

The researchers worked with biblical scholars from Jerusalem to produce a digital image of the scroll. The text is identical to Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, and is the earliest example of the text at almost 2,000 years of age.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we think anything would come of it,” said Pnina Shor, the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The quality of the image has raised hopes that the technique can be used to read other scrolls that cannot be unrolled due to their poor condition. Good candidates are several Dead Sea scrolls as well as around 300 carbonized scrolls from Herculaneum.

University of Kentucky computer scientist develops method over 13 years

Recovery of the text was possible thanks to software developed by computer scientist W. Brent Seales from the University of Kentucky. Dr Seales has devoted the last 13 years of his life to researching ways of reading the text inside ancient scrolls. His work was inspired by the hope that one day we would be able to read scrolls found at Herculaneum, near Pompeii in Italy, that was destroyed by  the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

It is possible to pick out blobs of ink inside damaged scrolls using CT scans, but the letters cannot be read unless each one can be assigned to a specific surface that it is written on. Dr Seales worked out that reconstructing the writing surface of the scroll was the first step, before sticking the letters back on it.

In 2009 he managed to decipher the physical structure of layers of papyrus in a Herculaneum scroll. Since then he has developed a method known as virtual unwrapping, which allows scientists to model an ancient scroll as a mesh of tiny triangles.

The triangles can then be resized by a computer to make the best possible fit of the internal structure of the scroll discovered by the scans. Blobs of ink are then assigned to their correct position on the structure, before the computer unfolds the 3D model into a readable 2D sheet.

Herculaneum scrolls could be next on the list

Dr Seales will make the programs, known as Volume Cartography, open source after his current grant is over.

The scientists were surprised at how well the method worked. “We were amazed at the quality of the images — much of the text is as readable as that of unharmed Dead Sea scrolls,” said Michael Segal, a biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

According to Richard Janko, a classical scholar at the University of Michigan, the carbonized Herculaneum scrolls are likely part of a larger library. This collection is thought to be contained in a large villa probably owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law to Julius Caesar.

Researchers believe that the library could hold long-lost pieces of Latin and Greek literature. As it stands large parts of the villa remain unexcavated, but this could change if Dr Seales’ method can be used to successfully read one of the Herculaneum scrolls.

If the successful reading of the charred Hebrew scroll can be replicated, Dr Seales’ method could lead to major advances in the reading of damaged scrolls.