Archaeology goes hi-tech

Scholars need not touch ancient finds to study and store them, as computers take over the arduous task

Published: Friday 31 May 1996

-- (Credit: Vishwajyoti)COMPUTER science techniques are being used to probe into the mysteries of archaeological finds, most famous of them being the Dead Sea scrolls, which carry a surfeit of information about many a biblical anecdote. A revolutionary discovery by scientists would now make it possible for scholars to restore and study old and highly damaged acquisitions without touching them.

It is like formatting and working a jigsaw puzzle on the computer. The technique was first developed and applied by Gregory Bearman, a physicist and remote sensing specialist at National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, California, us, to comprehend previously illegible texts. The method has been modified for archaeological purposes by Bruce Zuckermann, a scholar in Semitic languages at the School of Religion of the University of California, Los Angeles, us.

Zuckermann and his colleague Lundberg, Marilyn Hebrew Bible specialist from the West Semitic Research Project of the University of Southern California, us, started off with an easy task. They took three fragments, each about the size of a postage stamp, known to be parts of the Dead Sea scrolls that narrate the stories of prophet Daniel and his religious disagreements with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

The pieces were first photographed with cameras sensitive to infra-red light. The scrolls, brown with age, revealed faint scripts under strong magnification. The photographs were then scanned and digitised. It was then relatively easy to manipulate the images on the computer screen, magnify and electronically scissor the images and float it right next to the large parent manuscript. Often, half a letter on the smaller pieces fitted smugly with the other half on the manuscript and the researchers could then figure out where exactly the smaller piece was in the original parchment. The missing parts were thus reconstructed on the computer. The scrolls lay protected in their coverings and were not touched even once. By analysing the Aramaic script of the larger document, the scholars were also able to reproduce missing pieces of letters on the smaller fragments. Often, they recognised half a letter and reconstructed the rest in a scribe's own peculiar style by studying similar letters elsewhere in the text.

When Zuckermann and Lundberg described the new technique and the fight results of their tests at the Society of Biblical Literature in Philadelphia this January, many others were soon to recognise the immense potential of the unique method.

Apart from the Dead Sea scrolls, parchments more than 2,000 years "Qld reflecting on the social scenario at the beginning of Christianity and many other ancient manuscripts and inscriptions are now being deciphered using the new process. Zuckermann's team is busy reconstructing the Genesis Apocryphon, a scroll which, according to experts, contains invaluable information about events just before the Great Flood. Stephen Kaufman, a scholar of ancient middle eastern languages from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, us, is working to unravel Phoenician inscriptions on a stone monument from the eighth century BC.

Wayne Pitard, a specialist on ancient Syria at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is editing the digital versions of Ugaritic texts which provide a lot of insight on the Canaanites - inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria in the 13th century BC.

Experts, however, opine that "it would be very easy and even tempting" to use electronic restoration to doctor texts. The best guarantee, they say, to counter fraud would be for scholars to outline and detail each step they take to reconstruct the text. All that notwithstanding, the digital manuscripts might have more tales to tell!

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.