AI unlocks ancient Dead Sea Scrolls mystery

The scrolls were first found in caves near the Dead Sea

Researchers say Artificial Intelligence (AI) has for the first time shown that two scribes wrote part of the mysterious ancient Dead Sea Scrolls.

Tests were carried out on the longest text, known as the Great Isaiah Scroll.

It was found that probably two unknown individuals had copied down the words using near-identical handwriting.

The scrolls, which include the oldest known version of the Bible, have been a source of fascination since their discovery some 70 years ago.

The first sets were found by a Bedouin in a cave at Qumran near the Dead Sea in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

They contain manuscripts, mostly written in Hebrew as well as Aramaic and Greek, and are believed to date from about the Third Century BC.

The Isaiah Scroll is one of some 950 different texts discovered in the 1940s and 50s. It is unique among the scrolls in that its 54 columns are divided into halves, written in an almost uniform style.

Heatmap of letters from the Great Isaiah Scroll
IMAGE: UNIVERSITY OF GRONINGEN; Researchers used heatmaps to examine individual letters

Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands examined the Isaiah scroll using “cutting edge” pattern recognition and AI. They analysed a single Hebrew letter, aleph, which appears more than 5,000 times in the scroll.

In a paper published by scholars Mladen Popovic, Maruf Dhali and Lambert Schomaker, they said they had “succeeded at extracting the ancient ink traces as they appear on digital images”.

“The ancient ink traces relate directly to a person’s muscle movement and are person specific,” they said, using a technique which helped produce evidence that more than one scribe was involved.

“[The] likely scenario is [one of] two different scribes working closely together and trying to keep the same style of writing yet revealing themselves, their individuality.”

The researchers said the similarity in handwriting suggested the scribes could have undergone the same training in a school or family, such as “a father having taught a son to write”.

They said the scribes’ ability to “mimic” the other was so good that until now modern scholars had not been able to distinguish between them.

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