26th August 2008
The New York Times and other news providers are carrying a story today about the decision to make a comprehensive set of new digital images of the Dead Sea Scrolls available online.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
Equipped with high-powered cameras with resolution and clarity many times greater than those of conventional models, and with lights that emit neither heat nor ultraviolet rays, the scientists and technicians are uncovering previously illegible sections and letters of the scrolls, discoveries that could have significant scholarly impact.
….The scrolls’ contemporary history has been something of a tortured one because they are among the most important sources of information on Jewish and early Christian life. After their initial discovery they were tightly held by a small circle of scholars. In the last 20 years access has improved significantly, and in 2001 they were published in their entirety. But debate over them seems only to grow.
Scholars continually ask the Israel Antiquities Authority, the custodian of the scrolls, for access to them, and museums around the world seek to display them. Next month, the Jewish Museum of New York will begin an exhibition of six of the scrolls.
The keepers of the scrolls, people like Pnina Shor, head of the conservation department of the antiquities authority, are delighted by the intense interest but say that each time a scroll is exposed to light, humidity and heat, it deteriorates. She says even without such exposure there is deterioration because of the ink used on some of the scrolls as well as the residue from the Scotch tape used by the 1950s scholars in piecing together fragments.
The entire collection was photographed only once before — in the 1950s using infrared — and those photographs are stored in a climate-controlled room because they show things already lost from some of the scrolls. The old infrared pictures will also be scanned in the new digital effort.
“The project began as a conservation necessity,” MS. Shor explained. “We wanted to monitor the deterioration of the scrolls and realized we needed to take precise photographs to watch the process. That’s when we decided to do a comprehensive set of photos, both in color and infrared, to monitor selectively what is happening. We realized then that we could make the entire set of pictures available online to everyone, meaning that anyone will be able to see the scrolls in the kind of detail that no one has until now.”
The process will probably take one to two years — more before it is available online — and is being led by Greg Bearman, who retired from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Data collection is directed by Simon Tanner of Kings College London.
Jonathan Ben-Dov, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Haifa, is taking part in the digitalization project. Watching the technicians gingerly move a fragment into place for a photograph, he said that it had long been very difficult for senior scholars to get access.
Once this project is completed, he said with wonder, “every undergraduate will be able to have a detailed look at them from numerous angles.”
This is great news. I am glad they are also digitizing the existing photographs. Having the scrolls available online is great news, though I would hope they would also make them available in a new edition of Brill’s Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Reference Library or the like. This would allow for higher resolution images to be available; images which would be more useful for study and examination using the features of software like Photoshop.