Subscribe to The Jewish Standard free weekly newsletter

 
font size: +
 

From Qumran to Teaneck

Dead Sea Scrolls and advanced technology

 
|| Tell-a-Friend || Print
 
 
Zuckerman’s West Semitic Research Project uses technology to study scrolls
image
Bruce Zuckerman is founder/director of the West Semitic Research Project.

Digitizing the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in Teaneck led to an important discovery, said Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion in the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at the University of Southern California and founder/director of the West Semitic Research Project.

While the shooting itself took only several days, later analysis, conducted back at USC, revealed a possible new tool for refining the dating of the scrolls.

“We were very pleased; it was a complete surprise,” he said.

Zuckerman said he had known about the Teaneck fragments for a long time, “though not exactly what was there.”

Last year, he received a call from Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, who “is very good at finding interesting things.” Fields — who wanted to support an exhibition of scrolls at the Milwaukee Public Museum — told him that he had approached Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck.

“He said that no one had carefully examined the scrolls for a long time and asked if he could take a fragment to Milwaukee. The archbishop was gracious and sincerely interested in being helpful to scholars. He said he would allow one fragment to be used there.”

image
Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, left, and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research, photograph a Dead Sea Scrolls fragment using Highlight-RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging). Courtesy Yeshiva University

According to Zuckerman, Fields further proposed that it would be a good time to get the fragments photographically documented, something that had not been done since the 1940s. Would Zuckerman be interested?

“I said I’d make it happen,” said the WSRP founder.

Reflecting now on his experience in Teaneck, Zuckerman said “the archbishop was a model of cooperation. He and his colleagues were really wonderful to us.” And not only were they well-treated, but the study team also made a significant finding.

Initially, he explained, the four-member group was planning for the first time to use reflectance transformation imaging technology (RTI) on Dead Sea Scrolls — an imaging tool first shown to him 12 years ago by Hewlett Packard scientist Tom Malzbender, who demonstrated the concept by manipulating images of a bowl of rice. The aim was to get a detailed picture of the texture of the skin of the scroll, in order to gauge its condition primarily for purposes of conservation. In addition, he thought he might learn more about the hair follicle patterns on the skin. “I thought we might be able to pick something up,” he said. Pointing out that every skin is unique, “like a fingerprint,” Zuckerman said he hoped the technique might tell his team what kind of animal was used for the scrolls and would allow them to match fragments based on common patterns of follicles.

Shooting a series of 32 images at different light angles — later combining them into a master image allowing him to move the light around — Zuckerman found that he could see the skin patterns very clearly.

But even more, after enhancing the reflectivity of the surface, “we realized we could see the thicknesses of the ink strokes on top of the skin. In fact, we could even see the thicknesses of individual ink strokes and see which were made first, second, third.”

This has significant implications for paleography, he said. Traditionally, scholars have looked at the overall shape of the letters when studying ancient scripts. Now, with RTI, they can see much more — offering tantalizing new possibilities for the study of
the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One expert in the field has suggested that more than 50 of the scrolls were written by the same scribe, he said. “She looked at them and evaluated them by eye, but if we could get RTI images of these texts, we would have better empirical evidence to guide and test this kind of expert opinion.”

“It got us all very excited,” he said, noting that his Teaneck team included longtime colleague and WSRP associate director Marilyn Lundberg, Yeshiva University history professor Steven Fine, and Zuckerman’s brother Kenneth, a technical photographer with some 30 years experience photographing ancient texts, whom he credits with developing many of the techniques WSRP uses today.

“Almost every one of our advances is something he thought of,” said Zuckerman, joking that his brother was “born with a camera in his hands.”

The research project — created to make available high-resolution images of ancient Near Eastern texts — was founded by Zuckerman in the early1980s. The group focuses primarily on areas along the Mediterranean, looking at texts in Hebrew or in similar languages.

InscriptiFact, the database application that makes this information available — what Zuckerman calls “the distribution end of the project” — was begun in the late-1990s and became active as a public resource in 2004. Now, said its founder, it contains more than 50,000 images and is used by scholars in some 40 countries.

The professor recalled that in the 1970s, first as a graduate student and later as a “new Ph.D., I was always frustrated when I tried to study ancient inscriptions closely related to the Bible. You can’t read it if you can’t see it,” he said. “It’s hard enough even if you can see it.”

He cited one case where there were “20 different readings of a crucial passage, all depending on one murky photograph … yet major issues would turn on how you read that, how you interpreted a letter. I asked, ‘Why doesn’t someone work on that?’”

Solving the problem was not so easy, he said, pointing out that generally, “scholars can’t shoot and photographers can’t read,” noting that even the most photogenic pictures are often inadequate because a photographer, no matter how technically expert, cannot do the best documentation if he or she does not have scholarly foreknowledge.

Realizing that someone should try to master both disciplines, he set out to learn more about available technology.

“I didn’t have to go too far for help,” he said. “My brother was on the cutting edge of photography and computer imaging technology.”

According to Zuckerman, one of the reasons for WSRP’s success is that “we use technology as an incentive,” approaching museums and other collectors and telling them that WSRP will make the pictures, it won’t cost them a dime, and it will enhance the study of the collection itself.

“Our only request is that we be allowed to post [the images] on our database,” he said. While the site, InscriptiFact.com, is not “purely public,” users are asked to abide by a simple set of rules, agreeing that images will be used for study or education purposes and that — if a user wants to reproduce the image — he or she seek permission from the item’s owner. Once a user has agreed to these conditions, access is free of charge.

Zuckerman said he loves involving students in his work. “They’re the next generation; the ones who will be leading the charge.”

He said that Fine’s YU students “are incredibly well-trained. They can read ancient Hebrew like The New York Times. I can give them a better view — show them what’s possible,” he said. “It’s a natural relationship.”

In addition to his own students and YU students, Zuckerman has also worked with groups from the University of Illinois who have done high-resolution imaging of the school’s collection of Mesopotamian seals.

“It was a groundbreaking project,” he said, adding that “the idea is to give students a wonderful opportunity to use the technology. They take to it like a duck to water.”

Zuckerman said he has done some work with Dead Sea Scroll fragments at Azusa Pacific University in California and hopes, by the end of this month, to have begun work on a collection in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We have new ideas to try,” he said, adding that he is “trying to establish proof of concept before going to major collections like those in Israel. They don’t like to pull [the scrolls] out for no good reason. They need to make sure there’s a justification.”

He said he has just begun to test the combination of RTI and infrared imaging. While the latter has proved effective with scrolls, “no one has ever applied both together. We’ve adapted a camera that will allow us to do that.”

Whether his new technology will change the face of scholarship still remains to be determined, said Zuckerman.

“But I am confident that it will change things, that we will have a level and quality of information that we didn’t have before. How that plays out in terms of what we learn, I don’t know. We have to take this step by step and see how it goes.”

But, he promised, “we’ll move this material into the public domain with all deliberate speed.”

 

More on: From Qumran to Teaneck

 
 
 

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Scenes from a tragicomedy

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery and fate — and how fragments ended up in Teaneck — “is enormously interesting,” said Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The author of several books on the scrolls, he was instrumental in widening scholars’ access to them. (And that is a story in itself.)

The story “goes back to 1947,” he said in a telephone interview from Rehovoth Beach, Del., “when the first scrolls were found by the Bedouin” in a cave in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. More than 900 were eventually discovered in the Judean desert, in 15,000 fragments.

 
 

Yeshiva University students and professor take up the Dead Sea Scrolls challenge

“The problem with doing ancient history is that you don’t have very many sources,” said Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and part of the group convened by Bruce Zuckerman to study the Dead Sea Scroll fragments at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck. “You have to squeeze out as much as you can from everything that does exist.”

Fine, who also heads YU’s Center for Israel Studies, is clearly excited by the project and the doors that Zuckerman’s work have opened for students in the field.

He said that Zuckerman, a friend for some 30 years, first approached him when he was a graduate student in Jerusalem.

“I got a call saying, ‘Stop everything. Next week we’re photographing the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book.”

 
 

Fragments of history from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Throngs of Jews walk past St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck every Shabbat on their way to shul, unaware that the church is the caretaker of an ancient and precious piece of Jewish history.

When Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel arrived in New Jersey in 1949, he brought with him four scrolls and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known texts of books of the Bible. Although the scrolls were later sold to an Israeli archeologist, Samuel kept the fragments and they are to this day under the care of the Eastern Diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, headquartered in Teaneck.

 
 
 
|| Tell-a-Friend || Print
 
 

Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

Standardizing the Times

In which we announce and describe our new online partnership with the Times of Israel

The Jewish Standard is excited and pleased to announce our online partnership with the Times of Israel.

What does that mean to us, and to you?

It means that our hard copy version will stay as it is, but in the next two months or so our web presence will change entirely.

To explain, first we have to go backward.

Not really so very long ago, the world was so much more black and white.

Take newspapers. To begin with, they actually were black and white (and no matter what color your fingers were when you started to read, they’d be black by the time you were done. Ink didn’t stick on newsprint very well).

 

Vaccinate your kid!

Local Jewish leaders talk about their policies

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was a great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov; he was a chasidic master whose mysticism, extremism, creativity, asceticism, willfulness, and wild emotional swings from despair to ecstasy and then always back to despair make him an almost Byronic figure — had Byron, his contemporary, been a Jew from eastern Europe.

Nachman was thought to be so irreplaceable to his chasidim that they never did replace him; his spiritual descendants go to his grave in Uman, an otherwise obscure Russian town, around Rosh Hashanah every year, wearing their Na-Nach-Nachman-Me-Uman kippot as they brawl noisily around the town.

So why, you might wonder, is Nachman at the start of a story about vaccines?

 

Who stood at Sinai?

Conference to look at 25 years of Jewish feminism, examine what might come next

Every Jew who ever was and ever will be born stood together at Sinai when the mountain smoked and trembled and God revealed the law to them, midrash tells us.

Born Jews stood with those who were born into other faiths but were created with a Jewish spark that was liberated when they left their native people to join us. Souls encountered each other there, across millennia and over the boundless expanses of ocean that separate the continents.

At that one time and place, we were one people.

But wait a minute.

Exactly who was at Sinai?

According to the text, was everyone really there?

 

RECENTLYADDED

Born to lead

The head of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey tells his story — and federation’s

Learning to cull less-than-perfect goldfish as they hurtle by you on a slimy assembly line, using your bare hands, disposing of them in garbage bags, is not a skill most nice Jewish boys acquire.

Nor is standing in the middle of an ice-cold pond in a torn wetsuit and hand-selecting the most decorative available koi, at the orders of overseas hoteliers, again with your bare hands.

Jason Shames of Haworth did both those things, during a stay on an Israeli kibbutz. Those and similar skills, oddly enough, were part of a logical progression that took Mr. Shames from the Bronx to the helm of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, a job he accepted four years ago this week.

 

Hunting, hiding, finding — remembering

Israeli treasure hunter Yaron Svoray speaks in Ridgewood for GBDS

Usually — or at least in common mythology, because in truth most of us have limited knowledge in this area — adventurers are amoral. They are men, or occasionally women, who are driven by adrenaline, the rush of danger, the need to go higher or faster or farther away.

And then there are the people moved by mission, by a sense of justice. The do-gooders. They are usually better people, but most likely less interesting — or so the same common mythology suggests.

Yaron Svoray, 58, the Israeli son of Holocaust survivors, is driven by the very basic need to have good conquer evil. Toward that end, he has infiltrated a group of neo- Nazis by pretending to be one of them. He has worked to recover treasures that the Nazis looted, not to enrich himself — he has not — but to pry the destroyers away from their bloodstained prizes. He is now devoting himself as well to working with police across Europe to keep terror from overcoming the continent once again.

 

Fifty shades of gold

Morgan Library showcases modern illuminated Jewish manuscripts by Barbara Wolff

Psalm 104 is about beauty.

It is about other things as well, true, but it starts with beauty and returns to it as a touchstone.

It describes the world with rapturous metaphor. God, who is “clothed with glory and majesty,” who covers himself with “light as with a garment, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” has made the world in his image.

When you walk into “Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff,” at the Morgan Library in Manhattan until May 3, you are surrounded by the wild precise beauty of that creation, in rich lush exquisite witty masterfully detailed controlled miniature.

To walk into that room is to be stunned by beauty.

 
 
S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31