Google’s Latest “Book” Project is Ancient

Ancient scrolls written about 2000 years ago were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in the Judean Desert and were eventually bought by Israeli researchers between 1947 and 1967 from antiquities dealers.  The scrolls came to be known as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and are deemed as one of the most significant archeological find of the 20th century.

The scrolls were believed to have been written or collected by an ascetic Jewish sect that fled Jerusalem probably about the time the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  The sect settled at Qumran, on the banks of the Dead Sea. The hundreds of manuscripts that survived, partially or in full, in caves near the site have shed light on the development of the Hebrew Bible and the origins of Christianity.

The scrolls are on display at Israel Museum’s Shrine of the book and rotated every three to four months to minimize exposure.  And there are only parts of the scrolls on display so one can’t actually fully appreciate the magnificence of the scrolls, until now.  Google and the Israel Museum ventured on a project that makes the ancient scrolls available to anyone who has a connected device and an internet connection.

“This gives you a way to understand the beginning of biblical history,” said museum director James Snyder. “Nothing could be more important.  For us, the Dead Sea Scrolls couldn’t be a more important iconic cultural artifact,” added Snyder. “Any opportunity for us to bring them to the widest possible public audience and offer the opportunity to really begin to understand what these amazing documents are all about is something that we embrace.”

Photography work on the project began earlier this month in collaboration with a former NASA scientist with the use of an advanced $250,000 camera developed in Santa Barbara, California.  The camera allows researchers to discern words and other details not visible to the naked eye.  The latest photography work is centered on a fragment of a manuscript known as the Thanksgiving Scroll. On a computer screen was a piece of the Apocryphon of Daniel, an Aramaic text that includes a verse referring to a figure who “will be called the son of God.” The first fragments of that will be online by the end of the year.

The bulk of the complete scrolls are kept by the Israeli Museum, some pieces and small fragments are kept by other institutions and private collections, and the tens of thousands of fragments from 900 Dead Sea manuscripts are held by the Israel Antiquities Authority.  They are already collaborating with Google to include those in the project.  The Israeli Museum and Google both declined to comment on how much the project costs but they aim to complete the project and put all the ancient scrolls with their English translation by 2016.

The project known as The Digital Dead Sea Scroll makes five of the most important Dead Sea Scrolls available in the Web: The Great Isaiah Scroll, The Temple Scroll, The War Scroll, The Community Rule Scroll and the Commentary on the Habakkuk Scroll.  Out of the five, only the Great Isaiah Scroll can be browsed by column with an English translation, the others can still be browsed but most of them are tattered and almost destroyed.

If you think that nothing beats the real thing, you can catch the Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit that will open on October 28 at Discovery Times Square on West 44th Street in New York.  This will be the first leg of the US tour of the ancient scrolls, and will be followed by an exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in May 2012.