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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.

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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.

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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
].

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[Image via Israel Museum]