Google and Israel Museum publish Dead Sea Scrolls online

Fragments are "our Mona Lisa," says museum director.

September 27, 2011 06:08
3 minute read.
ARDON BAR HAMA photographs Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scrolls 311. (photo credit: Israel Museum)


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When the Second Temple period scribes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls on parchment 2,000 years ago and rolled them up in a clay jug in the Qumran caves, they probably weren’t expecting that a curious student in Guangzhou, China would be able to examine their calligraphy magnified several times on the screen of his smartphone as he waited for the subway.

But thanks to a new partnership between the Israel Museum and Google, five of the most complete Dead Sea Scrolls – including the famous Isaiah Scroll – were photographed at extremely high resolutions and are now available online for viewing at a level more detailed than the human eye can provide.

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The Isaiah Scroll was also translated line by line, allowing viewers to search in regular search engines in English for specific phrases or verses in the scrolls. A verse-by-verse Chinese translation will be finished shortly, as Bible scholarship is extremely popular in China, said Israel museum officials.

“When I arrived 15 years ago, I thought [the Dead Sea Scrolls] were like our Mona Lisa, and what the Mona Lisa is to the world is like what the scrolls are to world’s monotheistic religions,” said Israel Museum Director James Snyder. “The question was, how to keep content of the scrolls in the minds of people; how do we make them meaningful in our contemporary lifetime and in a world on fast forward?” he asked.

The partnership with Google and the Dead Sea Scrolls began just six months ago. Five of the eight Dead Sea Scrolls were photographed column by column in a period of just six days, and then the photos were stitched together to make a continuous scroll in a process that took several weeks.

The five Dead Sea Scrolls that have been digitized thus far include the Great Isaiah Scroll, the Community Rule Scroll, the Commentary on Habakkuk Scroll, the Temple Scroll, and the War Scroll. Only the Isaiah Scroll is searchable by verse in English. A Hebrew version is also under construction.

Ardon Bar Hama, a freelance photographer and one of the world’s premier experts in photographing ancient texts for online viewing, used a $50,000 camera that exposed the scrolls to the light for 1/4,000th of a second. Ben Hama’s camera shoots at a resolution of 1,200 megapixels, in comparison, a good personal camera shoots at about 12 megapixels.

Google utilizes cloud computing to store to the giant images, allowing people to browse the scrolls from their cell phones. Users will also be able to highlight their favorite verses and post them to their Twitter or Facebook pages, or to comment on verses through the site in an international dialogue.

“Google wants to organize information to make it accessible and useful, and it’s hard to think of content that is more important to make accessible and useful,” Yossi Matias, the managing director of Google Israel’s R&D Center, said of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Google is also involved with an initiative with the Israel Antiquities Authority to upload thousands of fragments from less complete Dead Sea Scrolls that belong to the IAA. The IAA project, which was announced nearly a year ago, is still gathering information and photographing the fragments.

Matias cited Google’s goal of breaking down barriers between information and people for their interest in facilitating online access to historical documents. Google also has projects to upload photos and documents from Yad Vashem, the Prado Museum in Madrid, and the Art Project powered by Google, which has masterpieces from many of Europe’s top museums.

The scrolls can be accessed at:

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