How Science Assists Biblical Archaeology - The Ketef Hinnom Scrolls and the Ein-Gedi Scroll

I love science. And I love the way that it works to provide evidence for the truth of the Bible.

A few years ago (15, actually -- dang, have I been doing this that long?), I wrote a blogpost entitled Ketef Hinnom: The Most Important OT Discovery in 100 Years? about one of the most important finds in Biblical Archaeology: the Ketef Hinnom Silver Scrolls. These tiny scrolls were discovered in 1979 in a tomb in the Hinnom Valley. The scrolls have been described in an article on WatchJerusalem entitled Ketef Hinnom Scrolls: A look at the oldest biblical texts ever discovered, as follows:
These scrolls were among a collection of over 1,000 objects found in a tomb on the edge of the Hinnom Valley, southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem. Made of 99 percent pure silver, one scroll measures 3.8 inches high by 1 inch wide when unrolled; the second measures only 1.5 by 0.4 inches. Professor [Gabriel] Barkay[, the scholar who discovered the scrolls,] stated these scrolls were probably worn as amulets.
The scrolls were so delicate that the museums to which they were first offered declined to work with them for fear that they would crumble under even the most delicate of care. Still, these tiny scrolls which were too fragile to handle were later opened and read to reveal that they contained quotes from the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy dated from the late-seventh to early-sixth century, somewhere between 650–585 B.C.

I have always been fascinated with the process that was used to read the scrolls. It wasn't easy. According to the article on which I based my original blogpost, the process (back in the early 1980s) was tedious and cumbersome (if effective). As I quoted:
First, he rinsed the amulets clean in a solution of alkaline salt and formic acid. Then the outer layer of each roll was coated with acrylic glue, which, when it dried, was both transparent and elastic. Finally, over a period of several months, the scrolls were unfurled a tiny fraction each day to reveal their contents.
Later, more technology was used to help make the Ketef Hinnom Scrolls even more readable:
Working with scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Zuckerman's group used advanced infrared imagining systems enhanced by electronic cameras and computer image-processing technology to draw out previously invisible writing on a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The researchers also pioneered electronic techniques for reproducing missing pieces of letters on documents. By examining similar letters elsewhere in the text, they were able to recognize half of a letter and reconstruct the rest of it in a scribe's own peculiar style.

*** To get higher-definition photographs of the inscriptions, Ken Zuckerman applied an old photographer's technique called "light painting," brought up to date by the use of fiber-optic technology. He used a hand-held light in an otherwise dark room to illuminate a spot on the artifact during a time exposure. In addition, he photographed the artifact at different angles, which made the scratched letters shine in stark relief.

The next step was to convert the pictures to digital form, making possible computer processing that brought out "the subtleties of the surface almost at the micron level." This analysis was particularly successful in joining a partial letter stroke on one side of a crack with the rest of the stroke on the other side. It also enabled the researchers to restore fragments of letters to full legibility by matching them with clear letters from elsewhere in the text.
While this process is amazing, it appears to have been surpassed by the computer work that was done to "open" and "read" a much younger, but still ancient, scroll known as the Ein-Gedi (or En-Gedi) scroll. As described by the National Geographic Magazine in an article entitled, Computers Decipher Burnt Scroll Found in Ancient Holy Ark:
SOME 1,500 YEARS ago, a fire raged through an oasis on the Dead Sea’s western shore, destroying a thriving Jewish community that had lived there for centuries. Yet amid the conflagration, the town synagogue’s Holy Ark survived—housing a fragmented animal-skin scroll that the searing heat essentially converted into charcoal.

For decades, the Israel Antiquities Authority guarded the document, known as the Ein Gedi Scroll, careful not to open it for fear that the brittle text would shatter to pieces.
How did they open the scroll? With advanced computer technology. According to an article on entitled Does AI Challenge Biblical Archeology?, the scroll was "opened" without actually opening it. Instead, the scroll was opened using computer algorithms designed to read into the layers of the still-curled up scroll. And the article had embedded a youtube video that showed how the process worked that was so good, I am sharing it immediately below.

So, what did the Ein-Gedi scroll contain? According to National Geographic: "Based on preliminary scans, Seales and his colleagues announced in 2015 that the Ein Gedi Scroll was a biblical text from the sixth century A.D. containing a column of text from the book of Leviticus." But as the scroll was further evaluated, the dating of the scroll was pushed back to the First or Second Century A.D And the text of the scroll is essentially the same text that we have of the book of Leviticus today.

So, if we are able to read charred remains of books that are centuries old and otherwise unreadable, imagine the vast storehouse of treasures that may be waiting out there to be uncovered and read. And some -- possibly quite a few -- will be texts of the Scriptures that will only continue to serve as significant evidence that the text that we have today is largely the same as originally written by many ancient Biblical authors. Science will help prove it all.


Nice interesting post BK, good to see you posting again.
BK said…
I am done teaching until at least the fall (unless I am surprised with a summer course), so I should post a little more often. But thanks for the welcome back.
The Pixie said…
Interesting. I had not ever heard of either En-Gedi scroll or Ketef Hinnom.

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