Secrets of Ancient Scroll of En-Gedi are Digitally Unraveled

Secrets of Ancient Scroll of En-Gedi are Digitally Unraveled

University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seales and his team have further unlocked writings in the ancient En-Gedi scroll -- the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively. Through virtual unwrapping, they have revealed it to be the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book -- Leviticus -- ever found in a Holy Ark.

Seales and his team have discovered and restored text on five complete wraps of the animal skin scroll, an object that likely will never be physically opened for inspection. In a study published Sept. 21 in Science Advances, Seales and co-authors describe the process and present their findings, which include a master image of the virtually unrolled scroll containing 35 lines of text, of which 18 have been preserved and another 17 have been reconstructed.

The charred scroll from En-Gedi. Image courtesy of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, IAA. (Photo: S. Halevi | uknow.uky.edu)

"This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay," said Seales, who is professor and chair of the UK Department of Computer Science. "There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets -- we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.

"We are releasing all our data for the scroll from En-Gedi: the scans, our geometric analysis, the final texture. We think that the scholarly community will have interest in the data and the process as well as our results," he said.

  • Archaeologists search for the last Dead Sea Scrolls in the Cave of the Skulls
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The software pipeline, referred to as "virtual unwrapping," reveals text within damaged objects by using data from high resolution scanning, which represents the internal structure of the 3-D object, to digitally segment, texture and flatten the scroll.

Learn how virtual unwrapping works in the video available:

In 2015, Seales and his team revealed the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus in the scroll, which is at least 1,500 years old and was badly burned at some point. Due to its charred condition, it was not possible to either preserve or decipher it. However, high resolution scanning and virtual unwrapping has allowed Seales to recover substantial ink-based text at such high quality that Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholars can now conduct critical textual analysis.

Partial transcription and translation of recovered text. (Column 1) Lines 5 to 7 from the En-Gedi scroll. (Credit: Brent Seales | uknow.uky.edu)

"With the aid of the amazing tomography technology we are now able to zero in on the early history of the biblical text, as the En-Gedi scroll has been dated to the first centuries of the common era," said Hebrew University's Emanuel Tov, co-author and leading scholar on textual criticism of Hebrew and Greek Bibles. Hebrew University's Michael Segal also worked with Tov on the textual criticism.

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The scroll was unearthed in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at En Gedi in Israel, headed by Dan Barag and Ehud Netzer of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, and Yosef Porath of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which uses state-of-the-art and advanced technologies to preserve and document the Dead Sea scrolls, enabled the discovery of this important find.

The En Gedi Scroll. ( zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)

"The discovery of text in the En-Gedi scroll absolutely astonished us; we were certain it was a shot in the dark, but the most advanced technologies have brought this cultural treasure back to life," said co-author Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls Project. "Now, in addition to preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls for future generations, we can bequeath part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year-old synagogue!"


Secrets of Ancient Scroll of En-Gedi are Digitally Unraveled - History

Diamond Light Source/Digital Restoration Initiative/University of Kentucky One of the 900 unraveled Herculaneum scrolls the University of Kentucky team hopes to virtually unravel.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. decimated the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Everything, including an invaluable library of scrolls, was lost to the inferno. According to The Guardian, however, artificial intelligence and high-energy x-rays could make these documents legible once more.

“Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible — and it is not any more,” said lead researcher Prof. Brent Seales, who chairs the computer science department at the University of Kentucky.

The two unraveled scrolls Seales and his team will use in their project belong to the Institut de France in Paris. In 1752, a staggering collection of 1,800 carbonized scrolls were unearthed at Herculaneum, a coastal town to the west of Vesuvius and less than 10 miles from Pompeii.

In terms of historical significance, this collection comprises the only intact library from antiquity. Most of it housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. Some archaeologists believe the structure in which the scrolls were found — aptly named the Villa of the Papyri — belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.

To date, reading the scrolls has proved extremely difficult. When scientists have tried to unroll them, they’ve mostly come apart, and whatever ink is left fades after exposure to the air.

And so Seales and his team have devised a method using cutting-edge technology that doesn’t risk destroying the precious scrolls.

Andrew Brookes/Diamond Light Source One of the many fragments of scrolls carbonized during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Seales and his team have already proven their mettle when they used high-energy x-rays to “virtually unravel” a 1,700-year-old Hebrew parchment that was found in the holy ark of an Israeli synagogue in En-Gedi. It was found to contain text from the the book of Leviticus.

Unlike the En-Gedi scroll, however, many of the Herculaneum texts weren’t written with metal-based ink. As such, there’s no visible contrast between the charcoal or soot-based writing and the papyrus itself in x-ray scans.

That’s where the U.K.’s advanced synchrotron, which is capable of projecting light brighter than the sun, comes into play.

The facility uses electrons to produce a remarkably bright light, which can be used to study everything from fossils and airplane engines to vaccines and viruses.

Seales thinks the facility, called the Diamond Light Source, will provide key information about the Herculaneum scrolls. From there, he and his team will use a type of artificial intelligence called machine learning to detect hard-to-spot fractions of the ancient writings.

Diamond Light Source The team has been teaching its machine learning algorithms how to detect hidden ink. Once that process has been refined, Seales plans on scanning hundreds more.

With the ultra-bright light, “we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible,” explained Seales.

“The machine learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it — pixel-by-pixel — from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is — voxel-by-voxel — in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragments.”

They’ll then apply that same logic to the still-rolled scrolls, enabling the machine to spot ink that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

Seales’s team has finished collecting x-ray data and are now focused on perfecting the system’s algorithms — with application expected in the next few months.

“The first thing we are hoping to do is perfect the technology so that we can simply repeat it on all 900 scrolls that remain [unwrapped],” said Seales. “For the most part the writings [in opened scrolls] are Greek philosophy around Epicureanism, which was a prevailing philosophy of the day.”

There’s a strong possibility that some of these 900 unfurled scrolls contain Latin text. Classical libraries are thought to have had both a Greek and a Latin section, but only a fraction of analyzed Herculaneum scrolls were written in Latin.

University of Oxford papyrologist and classicist Dr. Dirk Obbink, who’s worked with the scroll team, can’t wait to find out what ancient literary wonders will soon be discovered.

“A new historical work by Seneca the Elder was discovered among the unidentified Herculaneum papyri only last year, thus showing what uncontemplated rarities remain to be discovered there,” he said.

Obbink hopes some of the soon-to-be unveiled texts will contain works thought to be lost forever. The ancient collection could include poems by Sappho, for instance, or the treatise Mark Atony wrote about his drunkenness. Obbink, at least, is pulling for that particular outcome.

“I would very much like to read that one.”

After learning about the ancient scrolls of Mount Vesuvius being “virtually unraveled” with artificial intelligence and machine learning, read about the discovery of a headless skeleton at Pompeii. Then, check out these Ancient Roman boxing gloves discovered at Hadrian’s Wall.


The Scroll From En-Gedi: A High-tech Recovery Mission

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 21, 2016) University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seales and his team have further unlocked writings in the ancient En-Gedi scroll — the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively. Through virtual unwrapping, they have revealed it to be the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book — Leviticus — ever found in a Holy Ark.

Seales and his team have discovered and restored text on five complete wraps of the animal skin scroll, an object that likely will never be physically opened for inspection. In a study published Sept. 21 in Science Advances, Seales and co-authors describe the process and present their findings, which include a master image of the virtually unrolled scroll containing 35 lines of text, of which 18 have been preserved and another 17 have been reconstructed.

The feat garnered international exposure Wednesday with stories from BBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Fox News, The Guardian, The Economist and many others.

"This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay," said Seales, who is professor and chair of the UK Department of Computer Science. "There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets — we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.

"We are releasing all our data for the scroll from En-Gedi: the scans, our geometric analysis, the final texture. We think that the scholarly community will have interest in the data and the process as well as our results," he said.

The software pipeline, referred to as "virtual unwrapping," reveals text within damaged objects by using data from high resolution scanning, which represents the internal structure of the 3-D object, to digitally segment, texture and flatten the scroll.

Learn how virtual unwrapping works in the video above, also available at https://youtu.be/GduCExxB0vw.

In 2015, Seales and his team revealed the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus in the scroll, which is at least 1,500 years old and was badly burned at some point. Due to its charred condition, it was not possible to either preserve or decipher it. However, high resolution scanning and virtual unwrapping has allowed Seales to recover substantial ink-based text at such high quality that Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholars can now conduct critical textual analysis.

"With the aid of the amazing tomography technology we are now able to zero in on the early history of the biblical text, as the En-Gedi scroll has been dated to the first centuries of the common era," said Hebrew University's Emanuel Tov, co-author and leading scholar on textual criticism of Hebrew and Greek Bibles. Hebrew University's Michael Segal also worked with Tov on the textual criticism.

The scroll was unearthed in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at En Gedi in Israel, headed by Dan Barag and Ehud Netzer of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, and Yosef Porath of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which uses state-of-the-art and advanced technologies to preserve and document the Dead Sea scrolls, enabled the discovery of this important find.

“The discovery of text in the En-Gedi scroll absolutely astonished us we were certain it was a shot in the dark, but the most advanced technologies have brought this cultural treasure back to life," said co-author Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls Project. "Now, in addition to preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls for future generations, we can bequeath part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year-old synagogue!”

In addition to his co-authors, Seales credits his students, collaborators and supporters for making this work possible:

The National Science Foundation under awards IIS-0535003 and IIS-1422039

University of Kentucky – Department of Computer Science, Center for Visualization, and College of Engineering


Revealing the Secrets of an Early Coptic Manuscript – Morgan Library MS M.910

M.910

Scanning the original M.910 at the Pierpont Morgan Library [https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/science/biblical-codes-morgan-library.html I recently made a model/ prototype of a Coptic manuscript from the Pierpont Morgan Library [MS M.910], containing the Acts of the Apostles, written in Sahidic Coptic some time after the fifth century [the Copts are Egyptian Christians]. The original manuscript was scanned by digital unwrapping guru from the University of Kentucky, Brent Seales, and a team including philologist and religious scholar Paul Dilley [U. Iowa], and book conservator Maria Fredericks [Pierpont Morgan Library]. Here is the New York Times article about the project. The tripartite collaboration began early last year, out of meetings that happened in conjunction with the Mellon Sawyer Seminar I ran as a postdoc fellow, ‘Cultural and Textual Exchanges: The Manuscript Across Premodern Eurasia’, held at the University of Iowa.

Holding a model of the charred, 2,000 year old, En-Gedi scroll in my hand – a tiny thing! photo: M. Moreton

Seales visited Iowa in February 2017 to present his research on digital unwrapping of the ancient Hebrew En-Gedi scroll [50-100 CE] and preliminary work on ancient Roman Herculaneum papyri which date to the mid 1st c. CE or earlier. They were both written on papyrus [a sheet material made of the reed plant] and rolled up for storage, only to be charred and fused together 2,000 years ago. These ancient charred scrolls cannot be opened without permanent damage [many have tried with the scrolls from Herculaneum’s libraries], and cannot be read with the naked eye [they are charcoal black, turd-like objects]. Seales revolutionary approach to imaging these objects is described in this 2016 NY Times article and involves scanning them using x-ray tomography, and processing the data using a complex computerized algorithm [Seales’ Volume Cartography software], then reconstructs them in a process Seales calls ‘digital unwrapping’. For a look at this process, see Seales Mellon Sawyer lecture here.

The En-Gedi scroll, digitally unwrapped [photo: https://nyti.ms/2k4etJp] Scanning the 2,000 year old En-Gedi scroll was an early attempt at testing this system and was fantastically successful, revealing a legible scroll section containing the oldest known copy of the Book of Leviticus! Scrolls / rolls are generally only written on one side, which allowed Seales to perfect his scanning and data processing without the complication of sorting out ink on both sides of the sheet material. The Seales team has perfected this system over the last few years, and were ready to take it to the next level – imaging a codex, which contains sheet material written on both sides – a more complicated data processing challenging.

Paul Dilley, philologist and scholar of Coptic and Manichaean manuscripts, suggested that Morgan M.910 might be a good candidate for this. Maria Fredericks, the Drue Heinz Book Conservator at the Morgan, agreed to consider the project and start the process of inquiry. The manuscript will be scanned at the Morgan in December 2017, and data processed in the following months. I will be posting more on this once the images are complete.

Unlike the earlier charred papyrus scrolls, M.910 is written on parchment [animal skin] and contains a known text, the Acts of the Apostles [companion to the Gospel of Luke], a text authored in the late first century and copied out by the Copts. The manuscript is too fragile to be opened and is unreadable due to the water and heat damage it has suffered. The manuscript is also extremely warped, with a wave-like shape to the sheets – which is common with water and heat damaged parchment. All of these factors make it a good test case for perfecting data processing for parchment codex, and working out how to digitally separate and ‘flatten’ the writing on each folio.

Before scanning the original manuscript, the Seales team needed a prototype model to make sure the manuscript would fit in the custom-fit stand and the scan would work – this is the model I made using new parchment and scribed with iron gall ink. The x-ray tomography detects the presence of iron in the iron gall ink, so I needed to source iron gall ink for my model – and learn how to write in ancient Coptic using the Sahidic Coptic alphabet!

Super thin parchment skins from Jesse Meyer – a mix of goat, deer, calf

Much had to be approximated in recreating the original manuscript, since it had been water damaged and has suffered from the heat of the Egyptian desert [I think there may still be sand in the original binding!]. The manuscript is multi-dimensional [not a perfect block], so I went with the largest dimension 12.5 x 14.5 with a 5mm spine width. Usually when I make models of historical book structures, I’m not trying to replicate exact quire structure or collation [the number of bi-folia per gathering/ quire], so this was a difficult exercise, made especially challenging because it is impossible to replicate sheet material thickness and guess how thick it will be or how it will behave once it’s gathered into quires and sewn. We ordered super thin parchment from Jesse Meyer of Pergamena, scraped and sanded to as close as possible to the thickness of .13 mm. I requested a variety of skins for the job, goat, deer and calf. Each has a different look and feel. I measured and trimmed the large parchment skins to size, trying to maximize the number of bi-folia I could get out of each skin. I needed about 13 quires [gatherings of bi-folia], so finished the book block with a thick paper when I ran out of parchment. I punched 4 sewing stations [holes for sewing] for each quire using a jig, punching cradle, and awl – and sewed each quire with a simple tacket to keep the quire together while I was scribing.

In regular [later medieval] scriptorium practice, the scribe would be writing on unbound sheets of parchment [which would then be collated and bound]. Some books were also produced with blank quires/gatherings, then written in. Because of the complexity of the collation and scribal work on this project, I decided to scribe directly on to collated and tacketed quires, then resew the quires into the binding once the scribal work was complete.

detail of M.910 in Sahidic Coptic

Now for scribing. To complicate an already complex task, I copied out the Acts of the Apostles, from the typescript Sahidic Coptic on the computer. These are non-calligraphic letter forms, so they do not translate to forms that can be made with quill or pen and ink. I had to ‘translate’ the typescript letterforms to a calligraphic alphabet [with my own cheat sheet], then scribe it in one line in the exact center of the manuscript. Instead of creating a full calligraphic copy of the original [a much larger task], the imaging team wanted a single line down the center, running parallel to the spine of the book, so they could test detection of the iron gall ink through one spot [the center] of the manuscript.

My cluttered scriptorium space – copying Acts of the Apostles from the typeset edition on the computer onto parchment bi-folia using iron gall ink with a variety of pens and quills. Sahidic Coptic Alphabet [bencrowder.net] My first attempt at scribing Sahidic Coptic using iron gall ink – approximating the height of lettering in the original. It reads: The Acts of the Apostles – The first word indeed I made, O Theophile, concerning every thing which Jesus began to do and to teach in them…

Once I got my zetas and horis, upsilons and kyimas straight, I was off and quickly got into the scribal groove. This required a zen-like balance between concentration and ease. I scribed a single line on the manuscript, with only one mis-step – which is no problem on parchment since it can be ‘erased’ by scraping away the surface of the skin in a process called palimpsesting [not possible with untreated paper!]. This was satisfying.

Paul Dilley, ‘Scribe B’

Paul Dilley even tried his hand at scribing one of the 104 folios. I refer to him as ‘Scribe B’ – not as a statement about his untrained hand, but because he was the second scribe of the manuscript.

Once the scribal work was complete [took a few days], I was on to the binding. After consultation with Coptic binding expert, book conservator Julia Miller, I chose one of the sewing styles illustrated in Szirmai’s Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. I had to sew the link stitch loosely in order to meet the 5mm spine width requirement [the original spine is much narrower, but the book block at its largest dimension is 5mm so I had to match that].

I sewed the book with a link stitch, a sewing style that was commonly used in Coptic book production. The link stitch has a fascinating history, since this sewing technology appears in early Christian manuscript production throughout northeast Africa [Egypt, Ethiopia], the near east [Syriac, Georgian, Byzantine, Armenian] – and all the way to the British Isles, as exemplified in the 8th-c. Stonyhurst Gospel of John. It makes sense that the technology would travel as the books traveled and were shared throughout the early Christian world, but it is also became the dominant sewing style for Islamic manuscripts, which means that craft technologies were not sequestered within religious camps – and also suggests that early book makers were drawing on pre-existing craft technologies that were applied to the production of books. Georgios Boudalis, Head of Book and Paper Conservation at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki presents a case for this in his lecture and exhibit on the origins of book technologies, The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity [up through 8 July 2018 Bard Graduate Center Gallery, NYC]. In any case, each culture – Christian and Muslim – adapted the link stitch to their purposes.

I sewed the book like this – using one of many sewing styles for this era of Coptic manuscript. From Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding.

I sewed the book using this link stitch sewing [in two paired stations], being careful to sew loosely so that the book dimension would fit in the scanning stand the Seales team had made. Like the current state of the original, my model had no covers. I shipped the book off, and look forward to hearing about the results of the final scanning of M.910 at the Morgan. Historical bookbinding is something I do regularly to understand binding structures and book action – but it was a thrill to work on this model knowing it was part of this exciting digital imaging project!


Artificial Intelligence and Historical Research: Unlocking Ancient Secrets

Artificial intelligence is transforming historical research in profound ways, unlocking secrets contained in centuries-old documents and enabling technological and historical analysis at a level not previously thought possible.

The Great Isaiah Scroll

The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, dating from the 4 th century BCE. The first discovery of the scrolls was in 1947 when a young Bedouin shepherd stumbled on them in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea, now in the West Bank. Additional scrolls have continued to emerge, including some discovered just a few months ago. The scrolls are unsigned and undated, leading to understandable speculation and research as to their origins.

One of the longest (more than seven meters) and most complete scroll discovered in 1947 was the Great Isaiah Scroll. Visual analysis of the handwriting had almost universally concluded that it was the work of a single scribe, with any minute differences attributable to a tired hand or a change in pen. Now Dutch researchers from the University of Groninger, using computer techniques and Artificial Intelligence (AI), have concluded that it is probable that the Great Isaiah Scroll was penned by two different scribes. The changeover occurs in the middle of the scroll with a slight text break and a change in substantive content.

The study analyzed a single letter – aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which appears in the text more than 5,000 times. The process involved an artificial neural network trained using deep learning to extract details from the images.

The implications of this finding are significant:

  • Because the handwriting is nearly identical throughout, it suggests that the two scribes received the same training or otherwise collaborated.
  • Analysis of additional scrolls may elicit evidence of specific scribes and whether they belonged to different scribal communities with stylistic differences.

As explained in the abstract to the study:

Demonstrating that two main scribes, each showing different writing patterns, were responsible for the Great Isaiah Scroll, this study sheds new light on the Bible’s ancient scribal culture by providing new, tangible evidence that ancient biblical texts were not copied by a single scribe only but that multiple scribes, while carefully mirroring another scribe’s writing style, could closely collaborate on one particular manuscript.

Deciphering Lost Languages

AI has also been employed to decipher lost languages. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a system that can decipher a lost language without advanced knowledge of its relationship to known languages, an astounding advance since previous research has relied on mapping an unknown alphabet onto a known one. The system relies on a decipherment algorithm created from principles of historical linguistics to connect texts to related words in a known language.

This is not a process for the faint of heart. Because of the limited numbers of samples, there are no large datasets to generate an algorithm and it’s not possible to access lost languages that left behind no written documents. Moreover, from the practical point of view, there is not a huge demand to decipher these languages so research funding is limited.

Exploring Fragile Documents

In addition, there is “virtual unwrapping.” Where documents are so fragile that flattening or unfolding them would be destructive, they can now be digitally opened and revealed in their entirety. This technique has been developed over the years by Brent Seales, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky, who had the idea of adapting medical CT scanning to look inside documents. He used the process in 2009 to peer into scrolls from the library at Herculaneum, destroyed, along with neighboring Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The hope was that once the entirety of the scroll was visible, characters could be distinguished from background. For a variety of reasons relating to the small amount of trace metals and the inability to distinguish carbon in the papyrus from carbon in the ink, that did not turn out to be the case. However, in 2014 he was able to apply the process to the En-Gedi Scroll, a third or fourth century parchment scroll that turned out to contain the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, the earliest known Hebrew copy other than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Seales is using artificial intelligence to improve his software in the hopes that eventually it will be able to decipher the Herculaneum scrolls.

Bringing Historical Characters Back to Life

Another development, bound to be more controversial, is the use of AI to bring historical characters “back to life.” The Museum of Art and Photography in Bangalore, India (known as the Silicon Valley of India) has used facial recognition and other deep learning techniques to create a "conversational digital persona" of the painter M.F. Husain, who died in 2011. The digital twin can answer questions about Husain’s life and works. We can be confident that the responses of the digital Husain are based on competent research and used for educational purposes, but the AI that enabled them can be misused to distort history. In fact, we have previously examined the legal issues surrounding deepfakes that spread disinformation.

Like so many other AI applications, these technologies can be a double-edged sword, but the benefits for historians are potentially immeasurable.


The Herculaneum Papyri are among the most iconic — and inaccessible — items in the “invisible library” of irreparably damaged manuscripts. Buried and carbonized into chunks of charcoal by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the approximately 1,100 papyrus rolls offer us a unique window into the classical world. The collection was excavated from the ancient city of Herculaneum in the late 18th century. It was found in a luxurious home believed to belong to the family of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Known as the Villa dei Papyri, this site produced the only large-scale library to have survived from Greco-Roman antiquity and the only classical one to have been found in situ. Unfortunately, the contents of this highly unique and valuable library remain largely unknown to this day.

Opened Fragments

Since the scrolls’ discovery, people have tried various physical efforts to ferret out their contents. The results were largely disastrous. The most successful attempts were made in the 19th century, when about 300 of them were peeled apart by machine. This endeavor resulted in fragmented, layered sheets of brittle papyrus with visible, but largely illegible, writing on the black-as-charcoal surface.

These fragments are uneven and warped, which obscures and distorts the text even further. In addition, it’s practically impossible to tell where one layer of a papyrus wrap ends and another begins. This creates a jumbled mass of letters and words that is difficult to unscramble and understand. Finally, the top layers can hide three, four, or five — no one really knows how many — underlying sheets of writing. Thus, a non-invasive method for extracting the hidden text is needed.

Painstaking efforts to piece together meaning from these open fragments have resulted in limited success. Papyrologists have identified some texts as important works by Epicurus and his followers, including the poet and philosopher Philodemus of Gadara (see Oxford Bibliographies), and a recent laboriously analyzed papyrus turned out to be a Latin text by Seneca the Elder. In 2008 the Institut de France granted Dr. Seales and his team permission to study a fragment in their collection. The investigation led to the discovery of lead and other trace elements in the ink and represented the first ever instance of reported heavy metals in Herculaneum writings. The complete results were published in 2009 in the proceedings of the Academy’s annual program Lire Sans Détruire les Papyrus Carbonisés d’Herculanum. Although the quantities were very small, the presence of metal-based ink, a surprising discovery that Dr. Seales was first to report, suggested that imaging methods based on absorption, such as micro-CT scans, could produce contrast at the site of the writing. As a result of the knowledge gained from the fragment study, the Institut de France granted Dr. Seales permission to scan two intact Herculaneum scrolls on site using a micro-CT machine.

Digital Restoration of PHerc.118

One of the intact scrolls unpeeled by machine in the 19th century is known as PHerc.118 and resides at the Bodleian library at Oxford University. The physical unfurling of the scroll essentially shredded the document into a set of 12 “pezzos” (Italian for “pieces”) that were in turn made up of several smaller fragments. Over the years, various efforts were made to create a visually accessible facsimile of PHerc.118, but the result was an image record as fragmentary as the scroll itself. From 19th-century hand-drawn renderings made by artists when the scroll was first opened (called disegni), to analog film photographs taken in the late 1990s, to digital multispectral images captured in 2005, every venture created yet another version of each pezzo, without any link or reference to prior images. While advances in technology made some of the text clearer with every iteration, each image collection nonetheless posed its own set of problems and there was no method to view the images as a composite whole so that analysis and understanding of the text could be improved. In addition, these images were still two-dimensional, which prevented scholars from being able to see all of the surface layers, ridges, holes, and contours that, although they represent deformations, can provide clues for navigating the landscape of the text on fragmented, torn papyrus.

But in the summer of 2017, Dr. Seales and his team created a new digital compilation of PHerc.118. They scanned all 12 pezzos in 3D and created a detailed and accurate digital shape model of each one. New hyperspectral 2D images were also taken showing the barely-visible text under 370 different wavelengths of light (such multi-wavelength imaging can reveal text otherwise not visible to the naked eye). These high-resolution, enhanced 2D images were then aligned, or registered, onto the 3D shape models, revealing the writing on and within the fragments in ways never before seen. By allowing the best textual representations from each facsimile to be viewed at the same time and in 3D, this compilation of all images into one unified data set successfully created a comprehensive, more robust version of PHerc.118 that enhances the readability of the text and enables new scholarly study. Oxford papyrologists have already uncovered new details in our composite 3D version, such as the name Pythocles, a young follower of Epicurus and they have discerned the 17 character-per-line column structure of the text, which will be crucial to re-assembling the various fragments so the entire scroll can be read.

Closed Scrolls

Following the fragment study, Dr. Seales and his team traveled to the Institut de France in 2009 to perform the first-ever micro-CT scans of completely closed Herculaneum scrolls. These micro-CT images revealed much that was previously unknown about Herculaneum papyri and definitively proved it was possible to see, without physically opening the scrolls, every papyrus strand and fiber inside them, even the grains of sand trapped in tiny creases. This study provided the first ever volumetric images of a Herculaneum scroll, revealing the complexity of the internal structure and the utter scale of the task at hand. The scrolls were so tightly wrapped that in many places the scans showed little to no separation between layers, and the team learned much in their attempt to process the images.

First, naive application of existing segmentation techniques does not address the unique problems that Herculaneum scroll strata and that of other ancient manuscripts present. Depending on the type of material being scanned, scroll strata can appear fuzzy or almost indistinguishable due to time-induced distortion, disintegration, or other deformations of the writing medium. Some commonly used writing surfaces like papyrus can fray easily over time, while others like parchment made from animal hide often bubble or suffer holes. Such local defects in the surface make it difficult to visually follow a layer through the volume across the CT slices. Furthermore, undulations in and fusions of the scroll strata can cause the separations between layers to disappear and reappear at random, and tracking a single stratum through an entire scan becomes even more difficult as layers seem to merge together and then separate later on in the scan. The ink used to pen Herculaneum texts poses another challenge. Ancient writers used a mixture called “carbon black” which, when exposed to micro-CT scans, attenuates the x-rays the same way the carbonized papyrus, an carbon-based material on which it sits, does. Therefore, the ink of Herculaneum texts does not show up as readily in CT-scan data as that found in medieval texts, which usually contains metallic elements that are much denser than the writing surface and attenuate x-rays differently. In addition to these material-specific problems, micro-CT introduces its own anomalies and deformities into scan results, such as beam hardening, streaking, and ring artifacts, that must be compensated for in the final raw CT slices. These extra artifacts can make image processing much more difficult on scroll CT data and are heavily dependent upon the parameters selected at the time of the scan.

This confluence of challenges makes Herculaneum scrolls the most difficult digital restoration case encountered by Seales and his team. Following the 2009 micro-CT scans, the team spent the next few years prototyping a step-by-step computational approach for processing micro-CT data that would produce a digital representation of unseen text rich enough to enable textual scholarship, a process called “virtual unwrapping.” These advances address most, if not all, of the segmentation challenges presented by Herculaneum materials. Most recently, the team successfully developed and deployed a machine learning algorithm that is powerful enough to reveal the carbon ink that has proven so stubborn to researchers.

The Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky is made possible through the help of generous donations. Funding for projects is highly competitive, and gaps in funding delay progress and limit student opportunities. Partnerships allow this cutting-edge research to continue at the University of Kentucky with UK students at the helm. Please consider partnering with us through any of our many funding opportunities.


Virtually Unwrapping the En-Gedi Scroll

University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seales and his team have further unlocked writings in the ancient En-Gedi scroll &mdash the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively. Through virtual unwrapping, they have revealed it to be the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book &mdash Leviticus &mdash ever found in a Holy Ark.

Seales and his team have discovered and restored text on five complete wraps of the animal skin scroll, an object that likely will never be physically opened for inspection. In a study published Sept. 21 in Science Advances, Seales and co-authors describe the process and present their findings, which include a master image of the virtually unrolled scroll containing 35 lines of text, of which 18 have been preserved and another 17 have been reconstructed.

"This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay," said Seales, who is professor and chair of theUK Department of Computer Science. "There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets &mdash we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.

"We are releasing all our data for the scroll from En-Gedi: the scans, our geometric analysis, the final texture. We think that the scholarly community will have interest in the data and the process as well as our results," he said.

The software pipeline, referred to as "virtual unwrapping," reveals text within damaged objects by using data from high resolution scanning, which represents the internal structure of the 3-D object, to digitally segment, texture and flatten the scroll.

Learn how virtual unwrapping works in the video above, also available at https://youtu.be/GduCExxB0vw.

In 2015, Seales and his team revealed the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus in the scroll, which is at least 1,500 years old and was badly burned at some point. Due to its charred condition, it was not possible to either preserve or decipher it. However, high resolution scanning and virtual unwrapping has allowed Seales to recover substantial ink-based text at such high quality that Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholars can now conduct critical textual analysis.

"With the aid of the amazing tomography technology we are now able to zero in on the early history of the biblical text, as the En-Gedi scroll has been dated to the first centuries of the common era," said Hebrew University's Emanuel Tov, co-author and leading scholar on textual criticism of Hebrew and Greek Bibles. Hebrew University's Michael Segal also worked with Tov on the textual criticism.

The scroll was unearthed in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at En Gedi in Israel, headed by Dan Barag and Ehud Netzer of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, and Yosef Porath of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Center of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which uses state-of-the-art and advanced technologies to preserve and document the Dead Sea scrolls, enabled the discovery of this important find.

&ldquoThe discovery of text in the En-Gedi scroll absolutely astonished us we were certain it was a shot in the dark, but the most advanced technologies have brought this cultural treasure back to life," said co-author Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls Project. "Now, in addition to preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls for future generations, we can bequeath part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year-old synagogue!&rdquo

In addition to his co-authors, Seales credits his students, collaborators and supporters for making this work possible:

The National Science Foundation under awards IIS-0535003 and IIS-1422039

University of Kentucky - Department of Computer Science, Center for Visualization, and College of Engineering

  • Seth Parker, co-author and project manager
  • Zack Anderson, undergraduate research assistant
  • Jack Bandy, undergraduate research assistant
  • Andy Conway, undergraduate research assistant
  • Hannah Hatch, undergraduate research assistant
  • Sean Karlage, research assistant
  • Michael Royal, undergraduate research assistant
  • Melissa Shankle, undergraduate research assistant
  • Kendall Weihe, undergradaute research assistant
  • Christy Chapman
  • Chad Crouch, the Cre8tive Group
  • Daniel Delattre, emeritus director of research, CNRS-IRHT - Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes
  • Roger Macfarlane, Brigham Young University
  • Dirk Obbink, Oxford University

Learn more about Brent Seales and his research through the "People Behind our Research: Brent Seales" video and by listening to his podcast "Imaging with Brent Seales".


Marc Brettler talks with USA Today about the Ein Gedi Torah scroll

A small, seemingly unremarkable burned parchment fragment found 45 years ago during excavations on the western shore of the Dead Sea has emerged after hi-tech sequencing as part of the Book of Leviticus from a 1,500-year-old Torah scroll. USA TODAY

For decades, an object much like a burnt stick sat in storage in Israel, awaiting the day when its secrets could be divined. Now researchers have revealed that the blackened object is the one of the oldest known copies of a text fundamental to both Jews and Christians.

Hidden within the charred manuscript are verses from the sacred text called the Five Books of Moses. Also known collectively as the Torah, they are the foundation of Judaism and also integral to Christianity’s Old Testament. To scholars’ astonishment, the newly divulged text is exactly the same, in both letters and format, as text in modern Torah scrolls read by most Jews now.

The burnt manuscript dates to the 3rd or 4th century, according to chemical dating. The only older known Torah passages are found in the famed Dead Sea Scrolls. They date from the 2nd century and earlier and deviate slightly from the version of the Torah read today, indicating they were written before the Torah was completely standardized.

The scroll from En-Gedi. The seemingly unremarkable burned parchment fragment found 45 years ago during excavations on the western shore of the Dead Sea has emerged after hi-tech sequencing as part of the Book of Leviticus from a 1,500-year-old Torah scroll. (Photo: B. Seales)

Researchers considered analysis of the charred scroll “a shot in the dark,” Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority said at a news conference. “And so when this came back as a … flattened piece of material (that) looked like a scroll, you can’t imagine the joy in the lab.” Shor and her colleagues report their findings in a study published Wednesday in Science Advances.

The scroll was discovered in 1970 in a Jewish village called En-Gedi, which was destroyed by fire around 600. Inside the community’s synagogue, archaeologists discovered a Holy Ark, the cabinet where Torahs are stored. The En-Gedi ark held charred debris that had once been sacred scrolls.

One of those chunks of debris, now known as the En-Gedi scroll, was given a high-resolution version of a CT scan. Researchers created a digital 3D model of the scroll and looked on every surface for bright spots indicating inked letters. The images were digitally flattened and then pieced together, unveiling the text of five complete wraps of the scroll.

“Sometimes you can absolutely pull a text back from the brink of loss,” said Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, another author of the new study.

The text, from the first and second chapters of Leviticus, includes 20 verses in all, says study co-author Michael Segal of Israel’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The verses describe the proper procedure for making sacrifices, reading in part, “The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel.”

The En-Gedi scroll is the oldest known Torah text to be found in an ark, the study’s authors say.

Partial transcription and translation of recovered text. Lines 5 to 7 from the En-Gedi scroll. (Photo: B. Seales)

The researchers’ method for peering inside the scroll should be useful for other old texts as well, such as the many fragile old manuscripts in the Vatican Library, says Vito Mocella of Italy’s National Research Council, who was not involved with the study.

“Finding a Biblical text from this particular period is very, very rare,” says Marc Brettler of Duke University says. Though the scroll “offers good and welcome confirmation” that the text of the Hebrew Bible “stabilized” by the 3rd or 4th century, it doesn’t significantly change scholars’ understanding of the text’s development, he added.

The study’s authors say they hope to see more of the verses from the scroll. But what they have so far are “just like modern paragraphs,” study co-author Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said. “This is quite amazing for us, that in 2,000 years, this text has not changed.”


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Unveiling the innards of a scroll

Nowadays, the 1,700-year-old En-Gedi Scroll—one of the most ancient snippets of the Old Testament ever uncovered—isn’t much to look at. Ravaged by a fire that consumed a Jewish synagogue around 600 CE, the document transformed from a supple scroll into a charred, brittle cylinder of charcoal. The artifact is so delicate that, for decades, scholars dared not even attempt to peel back its layers for fear of destroying it for good.

But several years ago, a team of computer scientists led by University of Kentucky’s Brent Seales managed to crack the scroll’s contents without physically unfurling it. The non-invasive method, called “virtual unwrapping,” extracted intel from the burnt scroll with a combination of scans and image-processing algorithms.

The scroll itself made only a brief cameo in the team’s investigation, when X-rays were shot through its layers from several angles to visualize what was inside. These computerized tomography (CT) scans, Seales says, are the same ones radiologists perform on human patients with internal injuries—only instead of searching for bone breaks and tissue damage, researchers hunt for hidden text.

“Tomography is really powerful,” Seales says. “It gives you the ability to infer what’s inside something by taking views from all the way around, with a signal that goes all the way through.”

The charred En-Gedi Scroll. Image courtesy of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, IAA. Photo: S. Halevi. Pictured in Seales et al. Science Advances 2016

After the document was imaged, it went back into storage, and the team switched to a computational approach. What’s produced by a CT scan, Seales says, isn’t the type of picture you’d get from a typical camera. Instead, these machines generate cross sections—2-D “slices” of the inside of an object, like a front-on view of a cut loaf of bread. After collecting a series of these images, the team fed them into an algorithm that determined where one layer of the animal-skin scroll ended and another began.

Accomplishing this is especially difficult when a document’s pages have been warped, deformed, and smashed up against each other, says Yukun Lai, a visual computing expert at Cardiff University who, together with his colleagues, has published a series of papers that have digitally recovered the contents of other damaged historic texts. One way to deal with this, he says, is to use the typical thickness of parchment and other materials as a guide to digitally peel pages apart.

Interpreting (almost) invisible ink

Piecing together a page isn’t the same as reading what’s on it—and it’s not always easy to identify where ink has been laid down.

Relatively speaking, the text of the En-Gedi Scroll was fairly straightforward to detect, Seales says. Different materials block X-rays to different extents, and dense, metal-rich inks tend to pop when they’re printed on something carbon-based, like plant fibers or, in the case of the scrolls, the skin of an animal.

A cross section of the En-Gedi Scroll, as imaged by a CT scanner. Image Credit: Seales et al. Science Advances 2016

Things get more complicated when you’re dealing with a document that’s carbon on carbon, as in the case of the Herculaneum scrolls—a trove of papyrus that survived the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The scrolls’ scribes used a substance called carbon black as their ink of choice, which, from an X-ray’s perspective, is just as dense as the stuff on which it sits, Seales says.

But subtle differences still exist between material that’s been written on and material that hasn’t. For instance, the addition of carbon ink alters the shape of plant fibers, creating tiny bumps on the surface of a sheet of papyrus. Though these mini-mountains can’t be picked out by human eyes, Seales says, they can be made obvious to a well-trained machine. For the past few months, Seales and his team have been training an algorithm to search for the structural signatures of ink in data produced from CT scans of scrolls.

The researchers have yet to apply the method to the Herculaneum papyri. But ideally, that’s where this research is headed, Seales says. With a bit more tinkering, he says, the “lost” texts of Herculaneum might soon be found.

Even with CT scans, Herculaneum scrolls are particularly challenging to analyze because the ink and paper block X-rays to the same extent. Image Credit: The Digital Restoration Initiative, University of Kentucky

Reviving a dead language

The En-Gedi Scroll is emblazoned with Hebrew, and the Herculaneum papyri with Greek and occasionally Latin. But many other texts were inscribed in languages that have since disappeared from common use.

“Just because you can read the letters, that doesn’t mean you know what they mean,” says Regina Barzilay, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Barzilay, whose work in artificial intelligence has spanned applications from early cancer detection to drug discovery, is now working with her graduate student Jiaming Luo to decipher lost languages.

Their strategy hinges on the predictable way languages change over time—a process that’s similar to how species split on the tree of life. Like organisms, languages can be grouped into families that share common traits, including the way their alphabets, vocabularies, and grammar look and sound. Even if words manifest differently between languages, they often remain recognizable: the French terre and the Spanish tierra, for instance, share the Latin root for “earth."

These similarities aren’t coincidences, Barzilay explains. If two languages share a point of origin, there are only so many evolutionary paths they can take, even as they’re diverging away from each other.

Feeding these rules into a machine can give it a structured way to translate a language, as long as it’s given appropriate familial context, Barzilay says. So far, she and Luo have successfully tested out their strategy with two extinct languages: Ugaritic, an early form of Hebrew, and Linear B, which shares roots with ancient Greek.

The digitally unwrapped En-Gedi scroll. Image Credit: Seales et al. Science Advances 2016

These were proof-of-concept experiments, as both languages had already been meticulously deciphered by (human) linguists before any algorithms got involved, Barzilay says. Now, she and Luo are interested in teaching a machine to do what a person hasn’t: decode a totally lost language—perhaps even one with deeply contested evolutionary roots.

One example is Northeastern Iberian script, which has yet to be firmly classified into a language family. That means the algorithms will have to reverse engineer yet another piece of the puzzle, predicting the script’s origins before tackling its translation.

Once that’s possible, these techniques and more could even enhance the identification of ink in damaged texts, Barzilay says. “Even if letters are missing, or you don’t understand all of them, maybe you can complete it,” she says. “With all this technology. it’s about tying the whole process together.”

To learn more about how researchers are uncovering and analyzing ancient texts, watch “Dead Sea Scroll Detectives,” premiering on PBS at 9/8c on November 6.

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Scientists Read Ancient Hebrew Scroll Without Opening It

The charred manuscript is too delicate and damaged to unfurl. So researchers figured out how to read it from the outside.

At first glance, you could easily mistake this scorched, 2,000-year-old scroll for a hunk of lump charcoal. It’s been burned and crushed, it crumbles at the touch, and it looks absolutely, hopelessly unreadable.

Yet a team of archaeologists and computer scientists led by Brent Seales, a computer imaging expert at the University of Kentucky, has digitally unwrapped it. The En-Gedi manuscript is the first heavily damaged ancient scroll to be virtually unraveled and read, line by line, without opening it.

The scroll, which now resembles a fist-sized glob of ash, was originally discovered in 1970 in Israel near the Dead Sea, in a damaged Holy Ark in an ancient Jewish synagogue. Until now it has been carefully preserved, but never read. Seales and his colleagues just described how the scroll was virtual read in a paper published in the journal Science Advances.

“Like many badly damaged materials in archives around the world, the En-Gedi scroll was shelved, leaving its potentially valuable contents hidden and effectively locked away by its own damaged condition,” writes Seales and his colleagues.


Watch the video: Kibbutz En Gedi