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New Tech and Old Texts
From the BASNY Explorer

The study of ancient texts presents scholars with a number of difficult problems. For one, the writing on many portions of ancient texts has faded to the point of illegibility, and in many instances invisibility. Another problem is that document caches, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls consist of numerous fragments, some with large blocks of text, many with only partial letters, and still others with no visible text. How do we know which fragments belong to which documents?

One method traditionally used by scholars is to painstakingly examine each fragment as if it were part of a jig-saw puzzle, comparing the partial or complete letters to the writing style on other fragments, looking for similarities in the shape of the letters, scribal peculiarities, or similarities in idiomatic usage. This presents numerous problems, however. To begin with, it is exceedingly slow, limited to only a handful of people working on a particular fragment at any one time, a particularly troubling problem if you have hundreds or thousands of fragments. Also, different portions of the cache may have been distributed to scholars around the world, making it almost impossible to check all fragments against other fragments. And, of course, there is the difficulty of human vision, often unable to accurately see faded writings on the fragments.

Fortunately, scholars experimenting with a number of new technologies have introduced methodologies that give the scholar a variety of new tools. Consider DNA, for example, containing biochemical codes that distinguish each living creature from every other living creature. Numerous texts were written on animal skins. Where a cache contains several fragments from the same animal skin, each fragment of the same skin would have the same DNA code, and the identical codes can be used to sort one set of fragments from the others. The technology has advanced to the point where very tiny amounts of material can be used to generate a sufficient DNA sample for testing and such small test pieces can be taken without destroying the textual evidence. Unfortunately, DNA testing is still too expensive for mass usage on thousands of fragments in a cache.

An even more productive technology combines computer imaging with infrared photography. The infrared photography can reveal many written images no longer visible to the naked eye or enhance those images that have faded beyond recognition. These images can then be stored on a computer and moved around. Using the computer, one can enlarge the fragment and compare it alongside numerous other fragments. A computer file containing the images of the fragments can be easily distributed to scholars all over the world, who can then do their own analyses, greatly expanding the number of people who can work on any particular problem. Another important advantage to this technique is that no damage occurs to the document under examination, and it can be used on a variety of surfaces, including stone monuments, clay tablets, animal skins, and papyrus.

An article in the New York Times science section for April 2nd, 1996, by John Noble Wilford, describes an early application of this technique. According to the story, Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a scholar in Semitic languages at the University of Southern California School of Religion in Los Angeles, and Dr. Marilyn Lundberg, a Hebrew Bible specialist associated with the West Semitic Research Project at Southern California, selected three fragments, each about the size of a postage stamp, and known to be parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls containing the story of Daniel. They just didn’t know to what part of the scroll the fragments belonged.

The fragments had turned black with age but the infrared photography showed that two of the fragments had writing on them. The words “king”, “Shadrach”, and “Meshach” showed through. Next they scanned the numerous fragments into the computer. Once electronically preserved, the fragments could be manipulated and letters enlarged. A small piece could be “electronically” cut out and placed alongside other fragments, allowing the researchers to see if there was any place the two fragments might be logically joined. Often, they could align a piece of a broken letter on one fragment with the corresponding portion of the letter on another fragment.

The ability to finally reunite numerous unconnected fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls can help shed more light on a very important period in the history of Judaism and Christianity. While most of the larger fragments have already been translated, there are still a great many fragments that remain to be examined, fitted, and placed in context. Many unreadable pieces can now also be analyzed.

Wilford’s article also reports on another important project using this technique. Dr. Wayne Pitard, an historian of ancient Syria and Palestine at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, together with with Zuckerman, is editing the digital edition of the Ugaritic texts, a massive cache of cuneiform tablets dating to the 13th century BCE and found in the city of Ugarit in northern Syria. These texts, says Zuckerman, “are arguably the most important source we have for the literature of the Canaanites immediately before the biblical period.” He believes that new readings of the texts, when enhanced by computer imaging, will provide more insights into the Canaanite god Baal, and the early cultural influences of Canaan on ancient Israel.

On the negative side, computer imaging opens up numerous opportunities for fraud and hoax. A comprehensive set of procedural guidelines is necessary to ensure the integrity of scholarly work. Each step of the process needs to be documented, including pictures of each stage and an outline of the procedures followed.

Zuckerman claims that computer imaging “is the wave of the future for the study of ancient documents.”

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