A burned parchment believed to be 1,500-years-old was unearthed near the Dead Sea in 1970, but researchers have just now succeeded in deciphering the contents of the find they have called “the most ancient Hebrew scroll since the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Though the scroll was charred and tightly rolled, scientists used CT scan technology to create cross sectional images, thus revealing the text without having to unwind the document – which would likely have further damaged or even destroyed it.
The Israel Antiquities Authority on Monday announced that the scorched scroll found at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea 45 years ago was actually a copy of the opening verses of the Book of Leviticus which - perhaps ironically given the state of the scroll - describes laws for burnt offerings.
“To date, this is the most ancient scroll from the five books of the Hebrew Bible to be found since the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which are ascribed to the end of the Second Temple period (first century B.C-first century C.E.),” the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement.
Archaeologists believe it was once stored in the ark of the synagogue at Ein Gedi used by Jews living in the area during the sixth century A.D.
Both American and Israeli scientists were involved in the complicated year-long effort to reveal the content of the ancient text.
Using a micro-CT scanner, Merkel Technologies, Ltd., an Israeli company, conducted high resolution imagery of the Ein Gedi fragment, creating 3D images.
Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky then used digital imaging software to “virtually unroll the scroll and visualize the text,” the Antiquities Authority said. “Thus, the great surprise and excitement when the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus suddenly became legible.”
The Antiquities Authority released these videos showing the process of virtually unwrapping the scroll.
Archaeologists with the Antiquities Authority believe that this is the first time that a Torah scroll has been found in an excavated ancient synagogue.
"The deciphering of the scroll, which was a puzzle for us for 45 years, is very exciting,” said Sefi Porath, the archaeologist who discovered the scroll in 1970.
He explained that during the Byzantine period from the fourth to seventh centuries A.D., Ein Gedi was a Jewish village. Their synagogue was decorated with “an exquisite mosaic floor” and had a holy ark in which to store its Torah scroll.
After the village burned down, its inhabitants fled and never returned to collect their belongings.
Porath and his team also discovered at the site a seven-branched bronze candelabra (menorah), the community money chest with around 3,500 coins, various lamps and perfume vessels.
Porath said researchers do not know the cause of the fire, but some hypotheses include “Bedouin raiders from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine government.”
“This discovery absolutely astonished us,” said Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls division. “We were certain it was just a shot in the dark but decided to try and scan the burned scroll anyway.”