Combining science and humanities, researchers from the University of Groningen have cracked the code of the Dead Sea Scrolls thanks to artificial intelligence, allowing them to discover the scribes behind the scrolls.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered about 70 years ago, sare famous for containing the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and many hitherto unknown ancient Jewish texts. But the individual people behind the scrolls have eluded the scientists, because the scribes are anonymous.

Scholars have suggested that some manuscripts should be attributed to a single scribe based on handwriting. “They were trying to find irrefutable proof in the letter, for example, a very specific feature in a letter that would identify a scribe”explains Mladen Popovic, professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism. However, These identifications are somewhat subjective and are often hotly debated.

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Popovic, in his project “The hands that wrote the Bible”, teamed up with his colleague Lambert Schomaker, Professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence in the College of Science and Engineering. Schomaker has long worked on techniques for allow computers to read handwriting, often from historical materials. He also conducted studies to investigate how biomechanical traits, such as the way someone holds a pen or pencil, would affect handwriting.

In this study, published in PLOS ONE, they focused on one particular scroll: the famous Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) from Cave 1 at Qumran. The writing on this parchment seems almost uniform, however, it has been suggested that it was made by two scribes They share a similar writing style. So how could this be decided?

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Examination of the letters in the analyzed parchment lead to their authorship (MARUF A. DHALI, UNIVERSITY OF GRONINGEN)

Schomaker dice: “This scroll contains the letter aleph, or ‘A’, at least 5,000 times. It is impossible to compare them all with the naked eye ”. Computers are suitable for analyzing large data sets, such as 5,000 A’s written by hand. Digital images make all kinds of computer calculations possible, at the micro-level of characters, such as the measurement of curvature (called texture), as well as complete characters (called allographic).

“The human eye is amazing and presumably takes these levels into account as well. This allows experts to see the hands of different authors, but that decision is often not made through a transparent process ”, dice Popovic. “Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for these experts to process the vast amount of data that the scrolls provide.” Therefore, their results are often inconclusive.

The first hurdle was training an algorithm to separate the text (ink) from its background (leather or papyrus). For this separation, or “binarization,” Dhali developed a state-of-the-art artificial neural network that can be trained using deep learning. This neural network keeps intact the original ink traces made by the scribe more than 2,000 years ago as they appear in digital images. “This is important because old ink strokes are directly related to muscle movement of a person and are specific to each person ”, explica Schomaker.

Co-author and PhD candidate Maruf Dhali performed the first analytical test of this study. His analysis of the textural and allographic characteristics showed that the 54 columns of text in the Great Scroll of Isaiah were divided into two different groups that were not randomly distributed throughout the scroll, but rather clustered, with a transition around the mark From the half.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of some 981 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 in eleven caves in the West Bank's Qumran Valley.  Their importance lies in the fact that, together with the deuterocanonical and extra-biblical ones, they are the oldest known manuscripts of works from the Hebrew Bible.  The first seven were found by two Bedouin shepherds from the Ta'amireh tribe in a cave while they were chasing one of their goats and, unaware of their importance, they sold them to an antiquarian.  (Photo: Getty Images).

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of some 981 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 in eleven caves in the West Bank’s Qumran Valley. Their importance lies in the fact that, together with the deuterocanonical and extra-biblical ones, they are the oldest known manuscripts of works from the Hebrew Bible. The first seven were found by two Bedouin shepherds from the Ta’amireh tribe in a cave while they were chasing one of their goats and, unaware of their importance, they sold them to an antiquarian. (Photo: Getty Images). (PR /)

With the observation that there could be more than one writer, Dhali then handed the data to Schomaker, who then recalculated the similarities between the columns, now using the letter fragment patterns. This second analytical step confirmed the presence of two different ones. Several additional checks and controls were carried out. Schomaker: “When we added additional noise to the data, the result did not change. We also managed to show that the second scribe shows more variation within his writing than the first, although their writing is very similar ”.

In the third step, Popovic, Dhali, and Schomaker produced a visual analysis. They created heat maps that incorporate all the variants of a character on the scroll. They then produced an averaged version of this character for the first 27 columns and the last 27 columns. Visual comparison of these two average letters shows that they are different. This links the computerized and statistical analysis with the human interpretation of the data by approximation, because the heat maps are not dependent or produced from the primary and secondary analyzes.

Certain aspects of the parchment and the position of the text had led some scholars to suggest that after column 27 a new scribe had begun, but this was not generally accepted. Popovic: “Now, we can confirm this with a quantitative analysis of the writing, as well as with robust statistical analyzes. Instead of basing the judgment on more or less impressionistic evidence, with the clever help of the computer, we can show that the separation is statistically significant “.

In addition to transforming the paleography of the scrolls, and potentially other ancient manuscript corpus, this study of the Great Isaiah Scroll opens up an entirely new way of analyzing the Qumran texts based on physical characteristics. Now, researchers can access the micro-level of individual scribes and carefully observe how they worked on these manuscripts.

Popovic: “This is very exciting, because it opens a new window on the ancient world that can reveal much more intricate connections between the scribes who produced the scrolls. In this study, we found evidence of a very similar writing style shared by the two great scribes of the Isaiah scroll, suggesting a common training or origin. Our next step is to investigate other scrolls, where we can find different origins or training for scribes ”.

In this way, it will be possible to learn more about the communities that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Now we can identify different scribes ”, Popovic concludes. “We will never know their names. But after seventy years of study, it feels like we can finally shake hands with them through their lyrics. “

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