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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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Scrolling through the scrolls

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Announced with great fanfare late last year, Google, along with the custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have photographed, digitized and released online what has been called the most important archeological find of the 20th century. Now that the dust has settled on the project (actually projects), here is a guide for viewing the scrolls – and why you really need to visit two sites in order to get the full picture.

Although it may not be immediately apparent from the publicity or the various websites, the Dead Sea Scrolls are actually overseen by two Israeli institutions. As the excellent Wikipedia entry explains: “Apart from the first seven scrolls, which are entrusted to the Israel Museum, the majority of the fragments found by archeologists and Bedouin are property of the Israel Antiquities Authority… Both [digitized web] sites were developed with co-operation with Google Israel R&D centre.” 

STOP 1: The Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project at the Israel Museum

The Israeli Museum has digitized five of its scrolls: The Temple Scroll, The War Scroll, The Community Rule Scroll, The Commentary on Habakkuk and The Great Isaiah Scroll. Each scroll is introduced by videos featuring Adolfo Roitman, a curator with dramatic flair. Here’s what Roitman says as he says standing in the vault containing The Great Isaiah Scroll: “You are in a very special place. Right now you are at the Holy of Holies of the Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. Let’s see. Come with me.”

The actual digitization is magnificent. You can zoom in to examine the lettering and every crease, tear and sinew in the parchment. Navigation is smooth and intuitive. The Great Isaiah Scroll even has context-sensitive English translation. Click on a line in the parchment and the English appears alongside.

The site itself is trilingual: English, Hebrew and (a surprise to me) Chinese. []

STOP 2: The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library at the Israel Antiquities Authority

This is my favourite site. Before you get the scrolls themselves, there is a marvellous, detailed (yet not overly scholarly) explanation about the history of the texts, their discovery and conservation, and equally impressive, an overview of how the digitization process was done. As for the scrolls, you can look over featured gems such as The Ten Commandments, The Minor Prophets, Psalms and a pair of tfillin.

Don’t miss the incredible “Explore the Archive” section that allows you to search for such keywords as “Genesis” or browse by content (scripture, poetical/ liturgical texts, etc.), language (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Nabatean, Latin and Arabic) or site of discovery. Sometimes you’ll just look at a tiny fragment, but that only underlines the incredible work the researchers have done to preserve and identify all these treasures. This project will be completed in 2016.

The site is bilingual: English and Hebrew with Arabic “coming soon.” []

I will leave the final word about this remarkable project to Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority: “Only five conservators worldwide are authorized to handle the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now, everyone can ‘touch’ the scrolls on-screen around the globe.” []


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