Good news and bad news

Not this year … volunteers form a bucket chain to remove dirt from a downhill portion of the dig at Lachish in 2015. Photo by the author.

In the field of archaeology, there’s good news and bad. We might as well get the bad news out of the way first: virtually the entire 2020 digging season for volunteers has become a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most digs in Israel, at least, take place in May, June, and July. Nearly all of them rely on volunteers to do most of the actual digging, and the volunteers typically arrive on crowded airplanes and live in dorm-style or budget hotel rooms during their typical two- to four-week stint.

They also dig in close proximity to each other. All of those are no-no’s in this season of quarantine and social distancing. As a result, nearly every planned dig for the summer has been cancelled. That’s bad news for the field, and another aspect is even worse: the Israel Antiquities Authority reduced surveillance during a period of quarantine, leaving priceless sites wide open to looters, who dig carelessly with no thought for history or for social distancing. Several sites have been badly damaged, and there’s no way of knowing what priceless artifacts were stolen. Most will eventually end up in an underground antiquities market for wealthy but unethical buyers, and won’t be documented.

That’s bad news aplenty, but when digging in the ground is untenable, other means of research can still go on, and one particularly interesting one caught my eye: scholars studying severely damaged bits of ancient scrolls are teaming up with imaging specialists and nuclear scientists to “unroll” and read small tightly-rolled scroll fragments that are too delicate or too damaged to unroll in the ordinary way.

Some ancient scrolls, even when stored in the arid climate around the Dead Sea, have been damaged by humidity over the years, undergoing a process of gelatinization that leaves them as a dark lump that can’t possibly be unrolled without destroying them. That is the case with a few fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls that have defied deciphering so far.

En-Gedi scroll
The charred scroll from En-Gedi (right) that experts digitally unfurled (left).
(Image: © From Seales et al., Sci. Adv. 2:e1601247 (2016). Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License 4.0 (CC BY-NC).)

The basic process has been used to virtually unroll and read a fragment from a fourth century synagogue at En Gedi that had been burned around 600 CE. A few fragments of scrolls survived, but reduced to lumps of charcoal. In 2015, computer scientists at the University of Kentucky succeeded in using micro-CT scans and special computer software to digitally unroll and reassemble a finger-sized scroll fragment. Check out the amazing video of how it was done here. Once unrolled, the text turned out to be from the first part of the book of Leviticus.

That process relied on being able to detect traces of metal in the ink used by the scribes. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea scrolls are five to six hundred years older, from the first and second centuries BCE, when scribes typically used a carbon-based ink that doesn’t show up in the same way.

Gelatinized remains of the Book of Ezekiel, one the first test subjects in the project to read unopened Dead Sea scrolls Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority

To deal with that, researchers are now planning to use a particle accelerator to study the texts. According to Brent Seales, lead researcher on the En Gedi scroll project, particle accelerators not only produce subatomic particles when the atoms are smashed together, but also generate X-rays that can be directed to produce a much finer-grained scan than medical CT machines. With resolution as fine as a nanometer, researchers expect to be able to distinguish the presence of even carbon-based ink.

The coronavirus has slowed efforts to put the process in motion, but in time we can expect new readings from old texts. They’ll be short because the scroll fragments are tiny, but more light on the ancient text is always good news.


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