Il y a 50 ans, des rives occidentales de la mer morte, des archéologues ont exhumé de jarres millénaires des anciens manuscrits.
Malheureusement, la masse carbonisée des manuscrits empêchait sa lecture. Elle fut donc conservée en espérant qu’un jour la technologie permettrait de percer leur mystère.
L’université du Kentucky vient de relever le défit !
Ils ont découvert qu’ils tenaient dans leur main un fragment de texte qui ressemblait à s’y méprendre de la bible hébraïque, dans sa version la plus ancienne. L’criture déchifrée par l’ordinateur du manuscrit encore scellé est étonnamment claire.
Le manuscrit contient les deux premiers chapitres du Lévitique en ancien hébreux (qui ne contient pas de voyelles)
Les manuscrits de la mer morte trouvé à Qumran
he experts say this new method may make it possible to read other ancient scrolls, including several Dead Sea scrolls and about 300 carbonized ones from Herculaneum, which were dest
royed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
The date of the En-Gedi scroll is the subject of conflicting evidence. A carbon-14 measurement indic
ates that the scroll was copied around A.D. 300. But the style of the ancient script sugg
ests a date nearer to A.D. 100. “We may safely date this scroll” to between A.D. 50 and 10
0, wrote Ada Yardeni, an expert on Hebrew paleography, in an article in the journal Textus. Dr. Tov said he was “inclined toward a first-century date, based on paleography.”
The feat of recover
ing the text was made possible by software programs developed by W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. Inspired by the hope of reading the many charred and unopenable scrolls found at Herculaneum, near Pompeii in Italy, Dr. Seales has been working for the last 13 years on ways to read the text inside an ancient scroll.
Methods like CT scans can pick out blobs of ink inside a charred scroll, but the jumble of letters is unreadable unless each letter can be assigned to the surface on which it is written. Dr. Seales realized that the writing surface of the scroll had first to be reconstructed and the letters then stuck back to it.
He succeeded in 2009 in w
orking out the physical structure of the ruffled layers of papyrus in a Herculaneum sc
He has since developed a method, called virtual unwrapping, to model the surface of an ancient scroll in the form of a mesh of tiny triangles. Each triangle can be resized by the computer until the virtual surface makes the best fit to the internal structure of the scroll, as revealed by the scanning method. The blobs of ink are assigned to their right place on the structure, and the computer then unfolds the whole 3-D structure into a 2-D sheet.
The suite of software prog
rams, called Volume Cartography, will become open source when Dr. Seales’s current government grant ends, he said.
The En-Gedi scroll was brought to Dr. Seales’s attention by Dr. Shor. A colleague, Sefi Porat, who had helped excavate the En-Gedi synagogue in 1970, was preparing a final publication of the findings.
The scroll from En-Gedi rendered from the micro-CT scan. Credit B. Seales
He asked Dr. Shor to scan the scroll and other artifacts as part of a project to create images of all Dead Sea scroll material, and showed her a box full of lumps of charcoal.
“I said, ‘There is nothing w
e can do because our system isn’t geared toward these chunks,’ ” she said. But because she was submitting other objects for a high-resolution scan, she put one of the lumps in with other items.
Dr. Shor had the lump scanned by a commercially available, X-ray based, micro-computed tomography machine,
of the kind used for fine-resolution scanning of biological tissues. Knowing of Dr. Seales’s work, she sent him the scan and asked him to analyze it.
Both were surprised when, after several refinements, an image emerged with clear and legible script. “We were am
azed at the quality of the images — much of the text is as readable as that of unharmed Dead Sea scrolls,” said Michael Segal, a biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who helped analyze the text.
The surviving content of the En-Gedi scroll, the first two chapters of Leviticus, is part of a listing of the various sacrifices that were performed in biblical times at the temple in Jerusalem. Although some text has previously been identified in ancient artifacts, “the En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively,” Dr. Seales and his colleagues write in the journal Science Advances.
Richard Janko, a classica
l scholar at the University of Michigan, said the carbonized scrolls from Herculaneum were a small section of a much larger library at a grand villa probably owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso.
Much of the villa is still unexcavated, and its library could contain long-lost works of Latin and Greek literature. Successful reading of even a single scroll from Herculaneum with Dr. Seales’s meth
od would spur excavation of the rest of Piso’s villa, Dr. Janko said.
Both Dr. Tov and Dr. Segal said that scholars might come to consider the En-Gedi manuscript as a Dead Sea scroll, especially if the early date indicated by paleography is confirmed.
“It doesn’t tell us what was the original text, only that the Masoretic text is a very ancient text in all of its details,” Dr. Segal said. “And we now have evidence that this text was being used from a very early date by Jews in the land of Israel.”