AI helps prove two scribes wrote the text of a Dead Sea scroll

Most the scribes who copied the text from the Dead Sea Scrolls were anonymous because they neglected to sign their work. This made it difficult for researchers to determine whether a given manuscript should be attributed to a single scribe or to several, based on elements unique to their writing styles (a study called paleography). Now a new analysis of the handwriting of the great scroll of Isaiah, applying the tools of artificial intelligence, revealed that the text was probably written by two scribes, reflecting the writing style of the other, according to a new paper published in the journal PLOS One.

As we reported previously, these ancient Hebrew texts – roughly 900 full and partial rolls in all, stored in clay jars – were first discovered scattered around various caves near what was once the settlement of Qumran, just north of the Dead Sea, by Bedouin shepherds in 1946-1947. (Apparently a shepherd threw a stone while looking for a lost member of his flock and accidentally smashed one of the clay pots, leading to the discovery.) Qumran was destroyed by the Romans, around AD 73, and the historians believe the scrolls were hidden in caves by a sect called the Essenes to protect them from destruction. The natural limestone and the conditions in the caves have helped preserve the scrolls for millennia; they date back to between the third century BC and the first century AD.

Several of the scrolls have been carbon dated, and synchrotron radiation – among other techniques – was used to shed light on the properties of the ink used for the text. Most recently, in 2018, an Israeli scientist named Oren Ableman used an infrared microscope attached to a computer to identify and decipher Fragments of the Dead Sea Scroll stored in a cigar box since the 1950s.

A Study 2019 of the so-called temple scroll concluded that the parchment has an unusual coating of sulfate salts (including sulfur, sodium, gypsum, and calcium), which may be one of the reasons the scrolls were so well preserved. And last year, researchers have discovered that four fragments preserved at the University of Manchester, long presumed to be blank, in fact contained hidden text, most likely a passage from the Book of Ezekiel.

The current article focuses on the great scroll of Isaiah, one of the original scrolls found in the cave of Qumran 1 (designated 1QIsa). It is the only cave scroll to be fully preserved, apart from a few small damaged areas where the leather has cracked. The Hebrew text is written on 17 sheets of parchment, measuring 24 feet long and approximately 10 inches high, containing the entire text of the book of Isaiah. This makes the Isaiah Scroll the oldest complete copy of the book for about 1,000 years. (The Israel Museum, in partnership with Google, has digitized Isaiah scroll as well as an English translation as part of his digital project Dead Sea Scrolls.)

Most scholars believed that the Isaiah scroll was copied by a single scribe due to the seemingly uniform style of writing. But others have suggested that it could be the work of two scribes writing in a similar style, each copying one of the two separate halves of the scroll. “They were trying to find a ‘smoking gun’ in the handwriting, for example, a very specific trait in a letter that would identify a scribe,” said co-author Mladen Popovic from the University of Groningen. Popović is also director of the Qumran University Institute, dedicated to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In other words, the traditional paleographic method is inherently subjective and based on the experience of a given scholar. This is difficult in part because a scribe might have a fair amount of variability in their writing style, so how do you determine what a natural variation or a subtle difference indicating a different hand is? To further complicate matters, similar writing can be the result of two scribes sharing a common background, a sign that the scribe was tired or injured, or a sign that the scribe has changed writing instruments.

“The human eye is amazing and presumably takes these levels into account as well. This allows experts to “see” the hands of different authors, but this decision is often not made by a transparent process ”. said Popovic. “In addition, it is virtually impossible for these experts to process the large amounts of data provided by the rolls.” The Isaiah scroll, for example, contains at least 5,000 occurrences of the letter aleph (“a”), making it almost impossible to compare each aleph with the naked eye. Recognition of Popović’s thought patterns and artificial intelligence techniques would be well suited for this task.

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