Some 2,000 years after they were first written with ink on goatskin, and more than 60 years after their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls have gone digital, courtesy of the Israel Museum and Google.
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The museum launched a new website yesterday (dss.collections.imj.org.il ), together with Google Israel, featuring high-resolution images of the five complete scrolls as well as an English translation.
A Chinese translation is in the works.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in history, were written between the third century B.C.E. and the first century B.C.E. by a community that lived near the Dead Sea, at Qumran. The scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956, and are in the possession of the Israel Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
But except for a few small fragments displayed in the Israel Museum's iconic Shrine of the Book, the scrolls are kept in vaults, under carefully monitored lighting and temperature conditions.
About six months ago the museum and Google Israel began a project to photograph the scrolls using ultra-high resolution digital photography and post them on the website.
The five complete scrolls so far photographed are the Great Isaiah Scroll; the War Scroll, depicting a final war at the End of Days; the Temple Scroll; the Community Rule Scroll, describing the daily life of the people of Qumran; and the Commentary of Habakkuk Scroll, containing interpretations of the first two chapters of the book of Habakkuk.
The scrolls where photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama, an expert in high-resolution digital photography of historic documents. They were taken in the vault, using ultraviolet-protected flash tubes so as not to damage the scrolls.
The resolution is up to 1,200 mega-pixels, almost 200 times more than a standard camera. This means that the photo reveals not only letters, but also details invisible to the naked eye.
The pictures were processed by Google, which designed the website to enable virtual scrolling and word searches. Users can see a section of scroll together with the translation of the text, and can post segments of the scrolls to social networking sites.
"What the Mona Lisa is to the art world, the Dead Sea Scrolls are to the monotheistic world" said Israel Museum Director James Snyder at yesterday's launch, "and are dealing with the same challenge as the Louvre as to how to give the scrolls contemporary context. Now people from all over the world have the opportunity to study, try to understand and appreciate the significance of these documents," he added.
The Israel Antiquities Authority, which has hundreds of scrolls and scroll fragments in its possession, is at work on a digitalization project of its own, of a more scientific nature. The IAA site will not only show the scrolls, but also include a feature allowing users to digitally piece fragments together. The IAA has scanned about 250 fragments so far, and expects to launch its website by the end of the year.