Reading Old Books: Technology and Ancient Manuscripts

It seems that using technology to see inside a closed book is having a popular moment in the scientific community. In addition to the recent advances in using radiation to see through a book cover, scientists are using scans to ‘unwrap’ ancient scrolls.

Using a micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scan, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were able to virtually unwrap the En-Gedi scroll, a document that contains text from the Book of Leviticus and is the oldest book relating to Jewish and Christian scriptures ever found. Though researchers have known about the scrolls since its rediscovery in 1970, they never believed that they would be able to read its contents. The scroll itself is exceedingly fragile and was nearly destroyed by a fire in 600 AD. Scholars feared that if they touched it, the scroll would simply dissolve into chunks of ash.


The micro-CT scan, however, allowed researches to see the insides of the scroll without harming it. The imaging system was able to identify the traces of metal in the ink that survived the fire and ultimately revealed the original text. This technology was also helpful because it allowed scholars to enlarge the very small text on the scroll. As you can see from the image, the fragment is only about 6 cm tall.

With any luck, researchers will be able to use a similar technique to read from other fragile documents including pieces of the Dead Sea Scroll collection that are currently indecipherable.

Hopefully we will be able to continue finding new ways to uncover old writings! (As you might guess from my enthusiasm, I never have quite gotten over the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The salvation of ancient works is, to me, very, very exciting.)


Image Attribution: A Composite Image of the Digital Unwrapping of the En-Gedi Scroll,  B. Seales et a., Science Advances, 2016:2.


19 thoughts on “Reading Old Books: Technology and Ancient Manuscripts

      1. Funny you mention jetpacks. I remember as a kid (way back when) seeing newsreels of men actually using jetpacks to fly. They seemed very hard to handle, and had a limited range before they “landed” to keep from going out of control and crashing. With all our technology today, you would think jetpacks would’ve been perfected, or at least close to it.

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      2. I had forgotten that people tested those! Now that you say that I have a vague memory of pictures ye olde jetpacks. (The images I found online look almost unreal.) Though I was hoping for ones a little more stable… The people using those machines were much braver than I am.

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  1. We don’t have to look back as far as Alexandria to find atrocities against books: the Germans burned the ancient library of Louvain, Belgium, at the beginning of the First World War. Writing is the most powerful of the Fine Arts, as shown throughout history by repeated attempts of people to destroy its products and put limits on literacy.

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