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Secrets Of Charred Ancient Hebrew Scroll Unlocked Through Modern Scanning Software

22 September 2016, 6:01 am EDT By Alyssa Navarro Tech Times
Thanks to an incredible method known as "virtual unwrapping," scientists in Kentucky have uncovered the contents of a charred ancient document without having to unroll it. The parchment contains text from the Old Testament.  ( S. Halevi | Science Advances )

Scientists have uncovered the contents of an ancient Hebrew scroll without having to unroll the delicate and crumbling artifact.

The incredible feat was made possible thanks to a complex technology known as "virtual unwrapping," which allowed researchers to digitally analyze and scan the document.

"We're reading a real scroll," said Professor Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, the lead author of the research who examined the ancient artifact.

Known as the En-Gedi scroll, the ancient Hebrew document was first discovered in 1970 in the Holy Ark of a Jewish community, which dates back to 700 B.C.

Along with the rest of the settlement, the ancient scroll made out of animal skin was burned and charred to near-obscurity around A.D. 600, researchers said.

Because the parchment continued to disintegrate every time it was touched, scientists had to find a way to uncover its secrets without destroying it.

Now, through the use of virtual unwrapping, Seales and his colleagues have provided scholars with legible text from the ancient scroll.

The first parts of analysis revealed the book of Leviticus written in Hebrew, making it the oldest scroll from the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Old Testament — ever found in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea scrolls.

"We never dreamed we could bring it back to life," said curator Pnina Shor, co-author of the research.

In Israel, Shor and colleagues used X-ray based micro-computed tomography or micro-CT scan to digitally examine the scroll.

At this point, Shor said they were not certain whether the scroll actually contained a text, so they decided to increase the spatial resolution of the scan. This allowed them to capture whether or not each layer of the parchment had detectable ink.

The team's meticulous attention to detail finally paid off in the end: the parchment did contain ink and likely had metal such as lead or iron because it was shown as a dense material.

However, the text on the parchment was still illegible, so researchers in Israel opted to send the scans to Seales who was in Kentucky so they could apply the virtual unwrapping method.

The virtual unwrapping took three steps: segmentation, texturing and flattening.

Through segmentation, Seales and colleagues identified each layer within the digital scroll, and they created a virtual mesh for each layer. They manipulated the triangular mesh and "textured" the document.

Afterward, they digitally flattened the parchment and combined the layers into a flat 2D image. This allowed them to uncover the contents of the scroll.

Details of the study are published in the journal Science Advances.

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