Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls Online

One of the annoying truths about the contents of ancient archives such as the Dead Sea scrolls is that the mass of such documents are not terribly important at all and rarely are worth the effort to copy.  Today, digitalization has brought that cost way down and has produced useful and permanent recordings that truly preserve the content.

More wonderfully, the record is now open to all eyes, as are the Vatican records and are the records of the Spanish rule of the Americas.  And yes there are gems to be found by many scholars poring over the information.

I learned many years ago that important discoveries are a function of the number of informed eyeballs, rather than those of the first eyeball.  At times a properly prepared mind will spot that gem immediately, but that is called cherry picking.  One soon learns to value informed discussion and open debate to aid interpretation.

Beyond that it is understandable that scholars will naturally hoard raw data.  I just disagree with all that and think all such data needs to be published in digital form after a grace period to allow the owners to publish.  This also goes a long way to preserving such data.  Some of that data can also be legitimately charged out to produce a modicum of revenue back to the original creator as is done in the oil exploration business with seismic.

Dead Sea Scrolls to be digitized and put online
Google helps bring the Dead Sea Scrolls online  The Israel Antiquities Authority and Google are digitizing the entire collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls, bringing one of the greatest archeological finds of the past century online.

By Joel Greenberg

Special to The Washington Post 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 4:06 PM

JERUSALEM - The Israel Antiquities Authority and Google announced Tuesday that they are collaborating to produce digitized images of the entire collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls and put them on the Internet, making the archaeological treasure available to anyone with the click of a mouse.

The joint project is the latest stage of gradually widening access to the 2,000-year-old documents, once available to only a restricted group of scholars but made more accessible in recent decades through facsimile editions and published studies. Organizers say the first images will be online in a few months.

The project marries "one of the most important finds of the previous century with the most advanced technology of the next century," said Pnina Shor, the director of the project at the Antiquities Authority. "We are putting together the past with the future in order to share it."

The scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s and the 1950s in caves east of Jerusalem, near the ruins of Qumran on the Dead Sea. Scholars say the manuscripts, written between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D., provide important insights into the history of Judaism and early Christianity. They include the earliest known copies of books of the Hebrew Bible.

Shor said the approximately 30,000 scroll fragments, making up 900 documents, would be digitally photographed using infrared and multi-spectral imaging, producing high-resolution, enlargeable images of the original scrolls whose clarity would make it possible to better decipher them.

The multi-spectral photography, based on techniques developed at NASA, was intended to detect physical changes in the scrolls - which are mostly made of parchment, though some are papyrus - and to track their deterioration for preservation purposes, Shor said. But it has also revealed or improved the legibility of parts of the text that have faded and discolored with age and are not visible to the naked eye.
The scrolls, several of which are on permanent display here at the Israel Museum, were last photographed in their entirety in the 1950s, and Shor said making them available online would preclude the need to expose them to light, heat and humidity and thus save them from further deterioration.

Yossi Matias, director of Google Israel's research and development center, said the company had been involved in digitizing major libraries in Europe, as well as collections at the Prado Museum in Madrid and Iraq's National Museum. The Dead Sea Scrolls project, he said, would "enrich and preserve an important and meaningful part of world heritage" by making it universally accessible.

The online presentation of the scrolls will also include translations, transcriptions and a bibliography that will enable users to search relevant material in a number of languages and formats, a project announcement said.

Viewers will be able to examine scroll fragments as part of a restored document or in isolation, enabling researchers and scholars to put forward new readings and interpretations of the texts without having to travel to Israel to view the original material, Shor said.

"It opens whole new fields of research and facilitates more scholarly work," she added, predicting that the enhanced access to the ancient documents "should lead to new insights into the world of the scrolls."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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