From Qumran to Teaneck
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From Qumran to Teaneck

Dead Sea Scrolls and advanced technology

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Bruce Zuckerman is founder/director of the West Semitic Research Project.

Digitizing the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in Teaneck led to an important discovery, said Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion in the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at the University of Southern California and founder/director of the West Semitic Research Project.

While the shooting itself took only several days, later analysis, conducted back at USC, revealed a possible new tool for refining the dating of the scrolls.

“We were very pleased; it was a complete surprise,” he said.

Zuckerman said he had known about the Teaneck fragments for a long time, “though not exactly what was there.”

Last year, he received a call from Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, who “is very good at finding interesting things.” Fields – who wanted to support an exhibition of scrolls at the Milwaukee Public Museum – told him that he had approached Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck.

“He said that no one had carefully examined the scrolls for a long time and asked if he could take a fragment to Milwaukee. The archbishop was gracious and sincerely interested in being helpful to scholars. He said he would allow one fragment to be used there.”

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Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, left, and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, photograph a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment using Highlight-RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging). Courtesy Yeshiva University

According to Zuckerman, Fields further proposed that it would be a good time to get the fragments photographically documented, something that had not been done since the 1940s. Would Zuckerman be interested?

“I said I’d make it happen,” said the WSRP founder.

Reflecting now on his experience in Teaneck, Zuckerman said “the archbishop was a model of cooperation. He and his colleagues were really wonderful to us.” And not only were they well-treated, but the study team also made a significant finding.

Initially, he explained, the four-member group was planning for the first time to use reflectance transformation imaging technology (RTI) on Dead Sea Scrolls – an imaging tool first shown to him 12 years ago by Hewlett Packard scientist Tom Malzbender, who demonstrated the concept by manipulating images of a bowl of rice. The aim was to get a detailed picture of the texture of the skin of the scroll, in order to gauge its condition primarily for purposes of conservation. In addition, he thought he might learn more about the hair follicle patterns on the skin. “I thought we might be able to pick something up,” he said. Pointing out that every skin is unique, “like a fingerprint,” Zuckerman said he hoped the technique might tell his team what kind of animal was used for the scrolls and would allow them to match fragments based on common patterns of follicles.

Shooting a series of 32 images at different light angles – later combining them into a master image allowing him to move the light around – Zuckerman found that he could see the skin patterns very clearly.

But even more, after enhancing the reflectivity of the surface, “we realized we could see the thicknesses of the ink strokes on top of the skin. In fact, we could even see the thicknesses of individual ink strokes and see which were made first, second, third.”

This has significant implications for paleography, he said. Traditionally, scholars have looked at the overall shape of the letters when studying ancient scripts. Now, with RTI, they can see much more – offering tantalizing new possibilities for the study of
the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One expert in the field has suggested that more than 50 of the scrolls were written by the same scribe, he said. “She looked at them and evaluated them by eye, but if we could get RTI images of these texts, we would have better empirical evidence to guide and test this kind of expert opinion.”

“It got us all very excited,” he said, noting that his Teaneck team included longtime colleague and WSRP associate director Marilyn Lundberg, Yeshiva University history professor Steven Fine, and Zuckerman’s brother Kenneth, a technical photographer with some 30 years experience photographing ancient texts, whom he credits with developing many of the techniques WSRP uses today.

“Almost every one of our advances is something he thought of,” said Zuckerman, joking that his brother was “born with a camera in his hands.”

The research project – created to make available high-resolution images of ancient Near Eastern texts – was founded by Zuckerman in the early1980s. The group focuses primarily on areas along the Mediterranean, looking at texts in Hebrew or in similar languages.

InscriptiFact, the database application that makes this information available – what Zuckerman calls “the distribution end of the project” – was begun in the late-1990s and became active as a public resource in 2004. Now, said its founder, it contains more than 50,000 images and is used by scholars in some 40 countries.

The professor recalled that in the 1970s, first as a graduate student and later as a “new Ph.D., I was always frustrated when I tried to study ancient inscriptions closely related to the Bible. You can’t read it if you can’t see it,” he said. “It’s hard enough even if you can see it.”

He cited one case where there were “20 different readings of a crucial passage, all depending on one murky photograph … yet major issues would turn on how you read that, how you interpreted a letter. I asked, ‘Why doesn’t someone work on that?'”

Solving the problem was not so easy, he said, pointing out that generally, “scholars can’t shoot and photographers can’t read,” noting that even the most photogenic pictures are often inadequate because a photographer, no matter how technically expert, cannot do the best documentation if he or she does not have scholarly foreknowledge.

Realizing that someone should try to master both disciplines, he set out to learn more about available technology.

“I didn’t have to go too far for help,” he said. “My brother was on the cutting edge of photography and computer imaging technology.”

According to Zuckerman, one of the reasons for WSRP’s success is that “we use technology as an incentive,” approaching museums and other collectors and telling them that WSRP will make the pictures, it won’t cost them a dime, and it will enhance the study of the collection itself.

“Our only request is that we be allowed to post [the images] on our database,” he said. While the site, InscriptiFact.com, is not “purely public,” users are asked to abide by a simple set of rules, agreeing that images will be used for study or education purposes and that – if a user wants to reproduce the image – he or she seek permission from the item’s owner. Once a user has agreed to these conditions, access is free of charge.

Zuckerman said he loves involving students in his work. “They’re the next generation; the ones who will be leading the charge.”

He said that Fine’s YU students “are incredibly well-trained. They can read ancient Hebrew like The New York Times. I can give them a better view – show them what’s possible,” he said. “It’s a natural relationship.”

In addition to his own students and YU students, Zuckerman has also worked with groups from the University of Illinois who have done high-resolution imaging of the school’s collection of Mesopotamian seals.

“It was a groundbreaking project,” he said, adding that “the idea is to give students a wonderful opportunity to use the technology. They take to it like a duck to water.”

Zuckerman said he has done some work with Dead Sea Scroll fragments at Azusa Pacific University in California and hopes, by the end of this month, to have begun work on a collection in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We have new ideas to try,” he said, adding that he is “trying to establish proof of concept before going to major collections like those in Israel. They don’t like to pull [the scrolls] out for no good reason. They need to make sure there’s a justification.”

He said he has just begun to test the combination of RTI and infrared imaging. While the latter has proved effective with scrolls, “no one has ever applied both together. We’ve adapted a camera that will allow us to do that.”

Whether his new technology will change the face of scholarship still remains to be determined, said Zuckerman.

“But I am confident that it will change things, that we will have a level and quality of information that we didn’t have before. How that plays out in terms of what we learn, I don’t know. We have to take this step by step and see how it goes.”

But, he promised, “we’ll move this material into the public domain with all deliberate speed.”

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