Thousands of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls made the leap from musty clay pots in the Qumran caves to high-resolution images on the iPad on Tuesday, when the Antiquities Authority and Google launched the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.
The online, searchable archive (www.deadseascrolls.org.il) was launched after the authority spent two years scanning thousands of ancient fragments of parchment. The Dead Sea scrolls were found in 11 caves at Qumran in the Judean Desert in 1947.
The Antiquities Authority used digital imaging technology developed in part by NASA during the $3.5 million project. It expects to finish scanning all of the fragments in approximately three years.
The authority owns between 15,000 and 30,000 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that make up around 900 manuscripts.
That collection is separate from the eight Dead Sea scrolls owned by the Israel Museum, which also has a partnership with Google to digitalize its holdings. The museum used an extremely high-definition camera, while the authority used a high-resolution scanner.
The Antiquities Authority project was named after Leon Levy, a Jewish American philanthropist who died in 2003 and whose foundation made the initial donation to start the Dead Sea Scrolls scanning project.
Pnina Shor, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls research, explained that the infrared imaging would allow researchers to see parts of the fragments that have turned black with age, meaning the digital view will be superior to the scroll itself.
The technology captures an image of a fragment using six separate wavelengths, and combines all six to get a color image that can be magnified dozens of times and still remain clear.
Each fragment is also photographed with infrared technology, providing a crisp black and white image that is most useful for deciphering faded parchments.
Previously, the 300 scholars around the world who specialize in the Dead Sea Scrolls were only able to study them on their annual pilgrimages to Israel. Now, they can study the scrolls in-depth from their home countries.
Experts will also answer questions left in the “comments” section for each fragment’s image online. Users can search the fragments for specific phrases such as “milk and honey” or for specific passages, such as the Ten Commandments.
Shor called the fragments “the ultimate puzzle.”
Future versions of the website will allow the public to rearrange parts of the fragments to create a more complete picture. When the fragments were mounted and preserved soon after their discovery, some of the researchers incorrectly connected parts of fragments that are not continuous.
Yossi Mattias, head of Google Israel Research and Design, praised the project as an example of “the power of openness and crowdsourcing,” as it will allow armchair researchers to contribute their thoughts and opinions.
“That is the beauty of digital archives, you can take any content and make it accessible no matter where it’s from,” he said.
In addition to an archival project at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Google has a large presence at museums internationally in archiving their collections. Mattias said Google sees it as helping to fulfill its responsibility to carry out “cultural preservation projects” – as part of the company’s goal of cataloguing and organizing all of the information in the world.
“These are the most sacred manuscripts of the monotheistic world,” Shor said.
“There is an endless amount of people, millions around the world, who are interested in these scrolls.”
The Israel Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls website launch with Google in October 2011 drew 1.2 million visitors in the first 10 days.