Super X-rays could unravel Dead Sea Scrolls

Hidden secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls could be unlocked by British scientists using super-powerful X-rays.

The Diamond Light Source (DLS) in Didcot, England, is a machine the size of five football pitches that generates X-rays – a type of high energy light – 100 billion times brighter than those in a hospital.

Scientists have developed a way of using the beams to read rolled up parchments too fragile to be unfolded.

The technique has already been used successfully to transcribe a number of 18th century Scottish legal documents from the National Archive.

In future, researchers hope to probe much more ancient parchments dating back hundreds or even thousands of years, as well as classical musical scores written by famous composers.

But the most ambitious goal is to open up hidden passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Torah, the most revered Jewish document which is said to record the word of God as revealed to Moses.

“There are some parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls that haven’t been unrolled, and there are parts of the Tora that haven’t been seen as well, said Professor Tim Wess, whose team is developing the technique at the University of Cardiff.

“I think there are discoveries to be made in terms of trying to understand the whole picture of the history of the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and why they moved into that area of the Dead Sea.

“I understand there’s information about a battle between light and dark.”

The DLS creates its beams by accelerating electrons around a doughnut-shaped ring at enormous speeds. When the path of the electrons is bent by powerful magnets it causes the particles to leak energy in the form of X-rays, and other forms of light.

The powerful beams can be used for purposes of enormous use to medicine and engineering, such as unravelling the detailed structure of biological molecules and materials.

To “read” rolled up parchments, the X-rays are used in much the same way as they are in hospitals to produce images of bones.

Because the ink used for thousands of years to write on parchment contains iron, it creates a “shadow” on the X-ray image. Numerous X-ray scans are taken from different angles and the information digitally fed into a computer, which unscrambles the data to “unroll” the document and produce text that can be read. In tests, the technique has worked with 80% accuracy.

Prof Wess described the technique today at the BA (British Association) Festival of Science at York University.

He said many old documents could not be unrolled or unfolded without falling apart. Parchments were generally made from animal skin which over time can become jellified.

As well as investigating rolled parchments, the scientists also hope within the next three or four years to overcome the more difficult challenge of reading books without turning their pages.

The Diamond X-rays can also be used to investigate how fragile documents are, and how they should be preserved, said Prof Wess.

X-rays did not appear to harm dry parchments, but had been known to damage wet documents, he added.

“We have to proceed with caution,” he said.

Prof Wess confirmed that he hoped to use the technique to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, although he could not say when.

He had a few fragments of the Scrolls, some half the size of a postage stamp, currently housed at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester.

They were being used to provide information about how the parchments were degrading.

Around 900 scrolls were discovered rolled up and stored in jars in 11 caves along the north-west shores of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956.

There is debate over their authorship but many scholars believe they were written by the Essenes, a Jewish religious order. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain texts from the Hebrew bible and date from between around the second century BC to about the first century AD.

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