Jewish Journal

Dead Sea Scrolls in a new light

by Adam Wills

August 10, 2010 | 10:36 am

Bruce Zuckerman, USC professor of religion and linguistics, with Dead Sea Scrolls fragments at Syrian Orthodox church in Teaneck, N.J. Photo by Kenneth Zuckerman

Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Bruce Zuckerman, a USC religion and linguistics professor, is using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) to examine Dead Sea Scroll fragments. According to a recent article in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, Zuckerman is hoping to take his tech to Fort Worth, Texas later this month to record a fragment collection.

Last August, Zuckerman and other West Semitic Research Project (WSRP) members took their advanced imaging methods to a Syrian Orthodox church in Teaneck, N.J., where they photographed scroll fragments that have been locked inside the church’s vault since 1949, two years after the discovery of the scrolls in a Judaean desert cave.

While the primary aim of the project is to ensure the conservation of the fragments, the team is also getting to see the scrolls in an all new light, revealing details about its origins.

From USC:

Inside his office at USC, Zuckerman, professor of religion and linguistics, pulled up some of the New Jersey Dead Sea Scrolls images on his computer screen. Written in carbon-based ink on parchment (possibly from a goat), many of the ancient Hebrew letters were indecipherable in conventional photos.

At his computer, Zuckerman examined a high-resolution image with Marilyn Lundberg, associate director of WSRP. Lundberg’s husband, John Melzian, along with Kenneth Zuckerman built the equipment enabling them to apply the cutting-edge photographic methods, originally developed by the Hewlett-Packard Company.

“Technology like this has never been used on the Dead Sea Scrolls until now,” Bruce Zuckerman said. “This New Jersey project was the first [in which] we were able to apply our method to such large fragments.”

Founded in the early 1980s by Zuckerman and his brother, Kenneth, WSRP was the first to use polynomial texture mapping (PTM) to photograph the Dead Sea Scrolls, in addition to the standard practice of taking color and infrared images. The PTM technology uses the data from images taken at many different light angles to show the texture of the fragments’ surface.

Examining one fragment, part of a liturgical prayer, the pair spotted a tiny fleck on the first character in the word Adonai (Lord). They wondered whether the dot was parchment over the character, or a tiny hole scraped off the ink. Because the image had been photographed from every conceivable angle, the computer software program allowed them to see the fragment in many combinations of light and shadow. A click of the mouse on an image acted like a flashlight, revealing the tiniest of details.

Shining their virtual “flashlight” on the character, examining the texture of the skin, they concluded that a tiny bit of ink had flecked off the surface. At closer inspection, it also appeared the scribe had slightly messed up the ink stroke and made a correction.

“This technology gives us more information than we ever thought was possible,” Zuckerman said, adding that his students are also using the method to analyze the scrolls. “The information about the skin and the ink was unexpected. This gives us great hope for research of the future.”


Several offices in USC’s Ahmanson Center are filled with the futuristic-looking machinery Zuckerman’s team has created and uses to photograph ancient inscriptions. One contraption, dubbed the Twister, takes photos of an object perched on a turntable that revolves 360 degrees. Two other apparatuses nicknamed the Big Dome and Little Dome look like large black top hats adorned with red, white and blue wires. When artifacts are placed inside, photos are taken with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) staged in various angles.

Another room holds the Tarantula, a bigger, more powerful version of the domes with elements of the Twister. Lights are affixed throughout the seven-by-six foot gizmo. While lights turn on in succession, a camera shoots photos of an object balanced on a revolving turntable in the center.

“This is humanities enabled by science, by technology,” Zuckerman said. “As technology evolves, the line between humanities and science will continue to blur.”

Referring to the research that came out of New Jersey, Zuckerman told the New Jersey Jewish Standard, “We were very pleased; it was a complete surprise”:

The aim was to get a detailed picture of the texture of the skin of the scroll in order to gauge its condition primarily for purposes of conservation. Zuckerman also thought he might learn more about the hair follicle patterns on the skin.

Pointing out that every skin is unique, “like a fingerprint,” Zuckerman said he hoped the technique might tell his team what kind of animal was used for the scrolls and would allow them to match fragments based on common patterns of follicles.

Shooting a series of 32 images at different light angles—later combining them into a master image allowing him to move the light around—Zuckerman found that he could see the skin patterns very clearly.

But even more, after enhancing the reflectivity of the surface, “we realized we could see the thicknesses of the ink strokes on top of the skin. In fact, we could even see the thicknesses of individual ink strokes and see which were made first, second, third.”

This has significant implications for paleography, he said. Scholars traditionally have looked at the overall shape of the letters when studying ancient scripts. With RTI they can see much more, offering tantalizing new possibilities for the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One expert in the field has suggested that more than 50 of the scrolls were written by the same scribe, Zuckerman said.

“She looked at them and evaluated them by eye, but if we could get RTI images of these texts, we would have better empirical evidence to guide and test this kind of expert opinion,” he said.

“It got us all very excited,” he added, noting that his Teaneck team included longtime colleague and West Semitic Research Project associate director Marilyn Lundberg, Yeshiva University history professor Steven Fine and Zuckerman’s brother Kenneth, a technical photographer with some 30 years experience photographing ancient texts, whom he credits with developing many of the techniques used by West Semitic.


Zuckerman said he has done some work with Dead Sea Scroll fragments at Azusa Pacific University in California and hopes by the end of this month to have begun work on a collection in Fort Worth, Texas.

He said he has just begun to test the combination of RTI and infrared imaging. While the latter has proved effective with scrolls, “no one has ever applied both together. We’ve adapted a camera that will allow us to do that.”

Whether his new technology will change the face of scholarship still remains to be determined, said Zuckerman.

“But I am confident that it will change things, that we will have a level and quality of information that we didn’t have before,” he said. “How that plays out in terms of what we learn, I don’t know. We have to take this step by step and see how it goes.”

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