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Scholars Use New Technology to Decipher Dead Sea Scrolls

September 6, 1996
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With the enthusiasm of a couple of kids poring over a complex jigsaw puzzle, two scholars at the University of Southern California are piecing together once- indecipherable fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

They are dealing with writings dating back 2,000 years and more, but their tools are state-of-the-art, involving computer digital imaging and advanced infrared photographic techniques.

Bruce Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg of the university’s School of Religion are combining their expertise in biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern languages with high technology to reshape how archaeologists and historians will decipher ancient manuscripts and inscriptions on stones and clay tablets.

Their demonstration project is the Book of Daniel, found among the scrolls and their fragments in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea in 1947 and 1948.

The fragments, made originally of animal skins, were too fragile to be fitted together by hand, and over time they had turned brown and black, obliterating any writing hidden underneath.

Although the scrolls and fragments had been photographed shortly after their original discovery, the writing in the Daniel fragments was still hidden.

Applying both advanced infrared and digital imaging techniques, the USC team took the photos of three postage-sized fragments and first penetrated the black layer to reveal the Aramaic script beneath.

The two researchers discovered parts of truncated letters that seemed to point to the words “king” and the names of Shadrach and Meshach, Daniel’s friends who defied Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s order to worship a golden idol.

For their defiance, the two Jews and their friend Abednego were cast into a fiery furnace, but through divine intervention, emerged unsinged.

Zuckerman and Lundberg also noticed that the ancient scribe of the Daniel scroll had peculiar handwriting, producing what the researchers dubbed as a “bow-legged aleph” and a “triangular mem.”

Given these clues, the USC team electronically attached the fragment to like letters in the main scroll and by the same technique “cloned” whole letters to fill in missing segments of the truncated letters in the fragments.

“We rebuilt the document in the scribe’s own handwriting,” says Zuckerman. “No one has ever done that before.”

The researchers started with the Daniel project not because it was so difficult, but because, at least in their eyes, it was so easy.

“It’s a simple project, which demonstrates the methodology,” Zuckerman says. “In the future, anyone dealing with ancient manuscripts and inscriptions must learn this technique to get into the game. We are now playing by new rules.”

To extend the technique, the USC scholars and their colleagues at Hebrew Union College are working on a Phoenician inscription in basaltic stone, discovered in Turkey and dating from the eighth century B.C.E. The inscription apparently refers to ritual sacrifices of animals and possibly first-born sons.

Another project, with a Tel Aviv University scholar, focuses on a small silver amulet found 15 years ago near a Jerusalem grave site and fashioned in the seventh century B.C.E. Its apparently blank surface has now yielded the inscription of a priestly blessing, perhaps the earliest citation of a biblical text.

While the research is not expected to produce any startling new revelations about the origin or evolution of Judaism and Christianity, Lundberg speculates that the studies may shed some light on periods of turmoil in early Judaism.

The two researchers are not worried that they will run out of work.

“Ancient texts [sent by colleagues] walk into our door all the time, and it’s always the hard stuff,” says Zuckerman.

The USC team has extensive collaborative projects at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, Haifa University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“We are not competing with anyone,” Zuckerman says. “We are ready to share our knowledge with whoever needs it. These techniques will cause an information explosion in studies of the ancient world, and there is enough work for everybody.”

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