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The Dead Sea Scrolls Hit Google

Google has already placed millions of books and historic documents online. Now, thanks to some generous external funding and intra-institutional wrangling, it's the Dead Sea Scrolls' turn.

The Dead Sea Scrolls Hit Google

Google has already placed millions of books and historic documents online. Now, thanks to some generous external funding and intra-institutional wrangling, it's the Dead Sea Scrolls' turn.

Although replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls in various formats and levels of completeness have been circulating for a while—even hitting the museum gift shop market—full images of the scrolls will arrive on the Internet in about a year, thanks to a three-way agreement between Google, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Israel Museum. According to the IAA, the Museum's entire collection of approximately 30,000 Scroll fragments will be digitized as high-resolution images and made freely available via Google. It will be the first time the Dead Sea Scrolls have been photographed in full since the 1950s.

IAA general director Shuka Dorfman is excited about the project, saying that "We are proud to be embarking on a project that will provide unlimited access to one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th Century, crucial to Biblical studies."

Biblical archaeologists are also excited about the project. "The Dead Sea Scrolls are relevant to almost any question scholars ask from about 300 B.C. to 300 A.D.—the beginnings of Christianity, the creation of the Hebrew Bible, the roots of today’s Judaism. Now this fundamental material, this tantalizing evidence, will be available to all scholars at the touch of a computer screen," Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks tells Fast Company.   And judging by the profusion of mass market books on the Scrolls too, the general public will be happy about it as well.

Ever since their discovery more than 50 years ago, the Dead Sea Scrolls have fascinated researchers and the general public. Generally believed to have been written by the Essenes between 150 BC and 70 AD, the Scrolls provide invaluable insight into Judaism in the era of Jesus. They've also posed serious questions for believers in normative Judaism and Christianity thanks to their surprising contents. Within the next year, however, they will now appear on the Internet.

But there's one complication: Written on parchment and papyrus that are approximately 2,000 years old, the original Dead Sea Scrolls are remarkably fragile. Visitors to their home at Jerusalem's Israel Museum are only able to view small original sections of the original scrolls at once, with the bulk of the Scrolls in storage for safe preservation.

Work on the project will be conducted by Google's Israel Research and Development Center, using imaging technology developed by American firm MegaVision. Although the exact specifics of the digital imaging system were not made available, each Scroll fragment will be imaged in various wavelengths at "the highest resolution possible" and, according to the IAA, at equal image quality to the original. Google Israel will then make the Scrolls searchable in multiple languages, with a metadata setup that includes transcriptions, translations and bibliography.

The Dead Sea Scroll project was initiated by the IAA's Pnina Shor three years ago, and a variety of imaging technologies, hosting systems and preservation methods were considered before the decision was made to go with Google and MegaVision. The technical problems involved, due to the age of the Scrolls, were/are significant. One of the scientists involved, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Gregory Bearman, notes that "Humidity is one of the most significant drivers of parchment degradation. If it is too dry, the parchment dries, shrinks differentially, and then tears. On the other hand, if the parchment is too humid or wet, the collagen will turn to Jello." Although the Dead Sea Scrolls are physically located at the Israel Museum, primary jurisdiction over them is in the hands of the IAA.

But one of the most interesting aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls' online porting is the money trail. Primary funding was provided by the Leon Levy Foundation, a heavy player in library/museum philanthropy, Biblical archaeology and Judaic studies. The Levy Foundation is a major funder of the Brookyn Public Library in New York and recently paid to digitize the New York Philharmonic's archives. New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World was also funded by a $200 million grant from the Levy Foundation, though the donation spurred considerable controversy.

Another funder, the Arcadia Foundation, describes themselves as "protecting endangered culture and nature." The Dead Sea Scrolls project will be one of their highest-profile grants yet; other past projects include $45,000 to help translate Albert Einstein's personal papers and $495,000 to help conserve ancient African rock art.

The exact funding amounts provided by the Arcadia and Levy foundations were not available at press time. Although portions of the Dead Sea Scroll were placed online in the past, nothing similar to this project in scope has been tried as of yet.

[Disclosure: the Dead Sea Scrolls Information Center at the Israel Museum is named for a distant relative of mine].

[Image via Israel Museum]