Scientists and scholars in Jerusalem have begun a program to take the first high-resolution digital photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls so that they can be shown on the Internet.
The Israel Antiquities Authority ends a pilot project this week which prepares the way for a much larger operation to photograph the 15,000-20,000 fragments that make up the 900 scrolls.
The scrolls, first photographed in the 1950s after their discovery by shepherds in caves near the Dead Sea, have been kept in monitored conditions in a vault. Only four specially trained curators are allowed to handle them.
In a project that could take five years and cost millions of dollars, the fragments will be photographed first by a 39-megapixel digital camera then by another digital camera in infrared light. Finally, some will be photographed using a sophisticated multi-spectral imaging camera.
Eventually all the fragments will be available to view online, with transcriptions, translations, scholarly interpretations and bibliographies provided for academic study.
"The aim is that you can go online and call up the scrolls with the best possible resolution and all the information that exists about them today," said Pnina Shor, head of the artefacts treatment and conservation department at the antiquities authority.
Written about 2,000 years ago, the scrolls contain the oldest written record of the Old Testament. They contain almost all its books, often with more than one copy of each, as well as other religious material that came afterwards and writings from a religious sect dating to the time of Jesus. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on parchment, with some written on papyrus, both of which are extremely fragile and brittle and which age and darken over time.
The work is carried out under particular conditions in a small laboratory, with chilled air and walls painted grey to provide the correct light.
Among those helping are Simon Tanner, an academic from King's College London who has worked on more than 500 other digitalisation projects around the world, and Greg Bearman, a retired scientist who worked at the jet propulsion laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and with Nasa.
The work has already brought to light new revelations about the scrolls. The infrared photography has picked out letters not previously visible to the naked eye.
The detailed color photographs of papyrus fragments may help to identify pieces that fit together and fragments written by the same scribes. Scholars hope that this information will enable them to piece together more of the fragments and so come closer to putting complete sections of the scrolls together.
The imaging spectroscopy will, for the first time, allow the condition of the scrolls to be properly monitored, including their water content, in a non-invasive way and aid conservation by detecting any changes in the scrolls before they become visible to the curators.