The Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century, should be viewable on the Internet within five years, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.
A pilot project currently underway aims to digitally photograph every one of the thousands of Scroll fragments both in color and in infrared, providing worldwide access to the Scrolls on the web.
"Part of our mission is to expose our national treasures, and make them accessible to anybody anywhere in the world," said Pnina Shor, the head of the conservation department of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The pilot project, which is running in the millions of dollars, is expected to be completed within two years, while the ultimate goal of getting all the Dead Sea Scrolls online should be reached within five years, she said.
Many of the thousands of fragments of the scrolls were photographed only once in the 1950s, shortly after their discovery.
The conservation project underway, which is being carried out with a team of international experts, will include the digital imaging of the scrolls in both color and infrared, which will allow, among other things, the reading of scores of scroll fragments that have been blackened or ostensibly erased over the years and were not visible to the naked eye.
The scrolls were uncovered accidentally in November 1947, after being hidden for almost 2,000 years in remote caves in the Judean Desert.
The scrolls contain fragments of all of the books of the Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther, as well as the complete text of the Book of Isaiah.
They were written as early as the third century BCE - although most date to the first century BCE and the first century CE - and have provided scholars with a wealth of information about the Second Temple period.
In all, about 900 scrolls were discovered, which are now separated into 15,000-20,000 fragments.
Many of the scrolls are now housed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, with some of them periodically displayed elsewhere, including a planned exhibition next month of six of the scrolls at the Jewish Museum of New York.
But conservationists caution that each time the fragile scrolls are exposed to light, humidity and heat, they deteriorate.
"Too much humidity can lead to mold and bacteria growing on them, and too little humidity can cause them to become brittle and break," Shor said.
80 percent of the scrolls are on parchment, and the remaining 20% are on papyrus - both organic materials - explaining why they are so fragile.
"They are similar to human skin," Shor explained.
The scrolls, which are written in the Hebrew of the Second Temple Period, will include a transcription, translation and interpretation when they are made available on the web, she said.
The high resolution imaging being used as part of the pilot program will allow the international experts working on the project to determine the amount of water present in the scrolls, and whether they are being kept in the right air conditions, said Greg Bearman, a former senior scientist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"We aim to detect changes in the parchment before they become visible to the eye," said Bearman in the small laboratory where work on the conservation of the manuscripts is underway.
He noted that scholars can now see through the Scotch tape used by the scholars in 1950s to piece the fragments together, uncovering text underneath the tape that had previously gone unnoticed.
The crowded room, which is set to 20 degrees Celsius, is specially painted in a nonreflecting gray to deflect light away from the objects.
Such is their fragility that only four people are authorized to touch the manuscripts themselves.
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