Dead Sea Scrolls digital library
Dead Sea Scrolls digital library.
The library, stored on Google servers, will eventually hold all of the tens of thousands of fragments of the scrolls in very high resolution. For now, some 4,000 scans of infrared photographs taken right after their discovery in the 1950s have been uploaded, as well as 1,000 new scans done in a lab specially constructed for this task by the Antiquities Authority.

The lab has a special camera, based on NASA technology, which captures every fragment 28 times in 12 different wavelengths of light. A computer processes each photo into a color photograph of unprecedented resolution, and each such file consists of 4-5 Gigabytes.

The photograph shows not only the ancient letters but also the creases, scorched margins and ink spills. In addition, the fragments were photographed in infrared, revealing letters and words unseen by the naked human eye.

A team from Tel Aviv University has started working on software that will make it possible to play with the fragments so as to reconfigure them, because no one knows if the researchers of 60 years ago, who put the texts together out of even smaller fragments, got it right, and there may be other ways of combining them. Researchers hope to benefit from this example of crowdsourcing to solve the “ultimate puzzle” of 30,000 fragments that are 2,000 years old.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the Judean Wilderness in the 1940s and 1950s. Since then there were several attempts at preserving and documenting them, but most resulted in damage to the delicate goatskin scrolls. For example, adhesive tape – an exciting invention in the 1950s – was used on some fragments, causing serious damage decades later to these incredibly rare finds.

Some 20 years ago, Israel was accused of keeping the scrolls out of the hands of scholars and all of humanity for a host of reasons, resulting in a slew of conspiracy theories. Since then, an enormous international project has been under way, as part of which the fragments were published in a scientific catalogue, but it is inaccessible and unintelligible to the public at large.
About two years ago, Google Israel and the Israel Antiquities Authority launched a joint project funded by the Leon Levy Foundation, the Arcadia Fund and the Rothschild Foundation. Beyond the act of making the scrolls available to the public, the goal of the project is to preserve the scrolls and the most accurate facsimiles of them for future generations.

To date, some 2,000 of the 30,000 estimated fragments in the vaults of the Israel Antiquities Authority have been scanned using this special method. Of these, 1,000 have already been uploaded to the site. In a press conference given this morning, Pnina Shor, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls division in the Israel Antiquities Authority, estimated that all fragments will be available on the website within three years.

The scrolls contain different versions of Jewish sacred texts as well as sectarian scriptures penned by the writers of the scrolls. Among the fragments already uploaded are the first words of the book of Genesis, sections from the book of Deuteronomy (including the ten commandments), and fragments from tiny phylacteries.

In addition to allowing visitors to look at and read the fragments, the new website allows text searches in Hebrew and in English translation, as well as placing the specific scroll at the site where it was first found, using Google’s mapping capabilities.

In the future, other tools will be developed to help scholars and the public study the scrolls. The Israel Antiquities Authority hopes that the launch of the new site will lead to a new wave of scientific publications about the Dead Sea Scrolls. “It’s going to be possible to read the scrolls again. In terms of scholarship, the sky’s the limit,” said Shor.