December 31st, 2012
01:52 PM ET
By Sara Sidner, CNN
Jerusalem (CNN)–Tania Treiger pulls on her tight blue gloves and picks up her tweezers, preparing for the extraordinary job she has been hired to do. She is one of only five conservators in the entire world allowed to handle one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century. Treiger’s job is to help conserve and record the more than 2,000-year-old pieces of parchment that make up Dead Sea Scrolls.
Many of the fragments are smaller than a bottle cap, and Treiger is taking painstaking measures to preserve the tiny pieces of history by laying each one under a camera to be photographed. The work she and many others are doing now is making it possible for anyone around the world with access to the Internet to see and study the scrolls.
The scrolls were found by Muhammad Ahmed al-Hamed, a Bedouin shepherd, in Khirbet Qumran in caves near the Dead Sea 65 years ago in what was then the British Mandate Palestine, now the West Bank. When pieced together, the scrolls reveal some of the holiest and well-known texts of the world. In the delicate pieces of ancient parchment you can see the text of the Ten Commandments, the first chapter of Genesis, Psalms and many of the writings that make up the Bible as well as other non-biblical books. Nearly 900 manuscripts are now online because of a partnership between the Israel Antiquities Authority and Google.
Pnina Shor, who heads the Dead Sea Scrolls project, says she hatched the idea five years ago.
“These are manuscripts written 2,000 years ago, at the time when both Judaism and Christianity were formalizing as we know them today,” Shor said.
It has taken five years to get 5,000 scroll fragments online, which includes an exciting development due to modern technology. A thousand of the fragments have been photographed using NASA technology to reveal text previously impossible to see.
“For me, this is a dream come true," Shor said. "I have been working on this five years, and it is now like a dream come true because now not only the scholarly world is going to care for this but the public as well."
The process of revealing even more detail in the scrolls and digitizing them includes photographing each fragment 28 times front and back, using 12 colors of the spectrum and NASA technology.
Once Treiger puts the scroll fragment on the table to be photographed, photographer Shai Halevi sets the computer, and it snaps away using filters that are blue, green, red and many colors undetectable to the eye.
Halevi explains how it works: “We took the pictures over there with all the colors, different light length, then we're getting all the exposures on the screen, and I'm combining them all into one multispectral image. And now secret writings are going to be revealed with the infrared image.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls website offers all kinds of information, even details about each fragment. The search engine will tell you what cave the fragment was found in (the scroll fragments were found in several caves that came to be known as the Qumran caves); what language is written on the fragment; and what it says, translated into English or Hebrew and, very soon, Arabic. You can zoom in to see the finest detail.
At a press conference in Jerusalem, the head of Google’s Research and Development in Israel, Yossi Matias, explained the company’s role in making these ancient scrolls available to the masses.
“Google's mission is to organize the world's information to make it universally accessible and useful. And it's hard to think about more important content than the scrolls that have such significance to so many people worldwide.”
In the 1950s, some of the scrolls were photographed, and last year, the Israel Museum teamed up with Google and put five of the 900 manuscripts on the Internet. But, for this project, all the photos taken in the 1950s are now online. The team is continuing to photograph and preparing to put another thousand of the enhanced photos online this month.
Controversy has followed these scrolls from the day they were discovered. Arguments abound over who actually wrote them and who owns them. Now that they are available to the entire world for crowdsourcing, who knows what new controversies or perhaps answers can be uncovered in the ancient writings?
CNN's Michael Schwartz contributed to this report.
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