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 didnt 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.
Wilfords 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.