Israel, Germany to Collaborate on Learning Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls

New technologies and alliances will be developed to match up thousands of 2,000-year old parchment fragments.

Part of the Dead Sea Scrolls is in fragments. The hope is that new technologies can be invented to help match up the pieces and achieve whole, legible texts.
Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The biggest problem with the Dead Sea Scrolls, their fragility aside, is that this approximately 2,000-year old set of manuscripts is in pieces. While some parts of it exist in almost-whole legible rolls, much is in thousands of fragments. Now Israeli and German authorities have announced a collaboration to use cutting-edge technology that can match fragments up, identifying connections between the fragments and hopefully creating legible texts.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were originally discovered in 1946, two years before Israel's establishment, by three Bedouin. They happened upon the first part of a cache of parchment pieces, stored for over 2,000 years in clay jars in a cave in the hills overlooking the western shore of the Dead Sea, adjacent to the site known as Qumran, north of Ein Gedi. The area is dry as a bone, which helped preserve the ancient parchments.

However, the scrolls, and their fragments, were soon sold and scattered around the world. Most of the pieces have been re-gathered and are kept in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Altogether over 980 texts were found in 11 Qumran caves. The texts are believed to have been written over a period of some 400 years, starting in the 3rd century BCE.

The big question is what they say. Much has been deciphered, but significant amounts remain and now the hope is that 70 years after the initial discovery, using new technologies to be developed together, the collaboration between Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities of Germany with the Israel Antiquities Authority, Haifa University and Tel Aviv University will join the thousands of “puzzle pieces”.

The project has received 1.6 million euros in funding from the Deutsch-Israelische-Projektförderung.

The participants intend to develop new tools to study the parchments, and to enrich their finds with the help of linking resources, including the databases of the Qumran-Lexicon-project of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library of the IAA.

"The main outcomes of the project will be an enhanced hands-on virtual workspace that will allow scholars around the world to work together simultaneously, as well as a new platform for collaborative production and publication of Dead Sea Scrolls editions," stated the IAA.

Advanced imaging technology of the Israel Antiquities Authority developed specifically for the scrolls.
Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority