Research shines light on mysterious scribes behind the Dead Sea Scrolls

Artificial intelligence used to 'shake hands' with creators of ancient religious manuscripts

Researchers studying the Dead Sea Scrolls say they have shone some light on the mysterious scribes who created the ancient texts by analysing their handwriting.

Discovered in Israel seven decades ago, the Scrolls date back about 2,000 years and contain the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament and previously unknown Jewish scripture, written in Hebrew and Aramaic.

While their historical importance cannot be contested, little is known about the anonymous scribes who created them.

However, by analysing their handwriting using artificial intelligence, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands say they can now "shake hands" with the scribes.

The experts say they have proof that at least one of the texts was written by two different people, despite near-uniform penmanship.

The project was spearheaded by University of Groningen professors Mladen Popovic and Lambert Schomaker.

Their research attempted to find a "smoking gun" in the handwriting, such as a specific trait in a letter, to identify a scribe.

Artificial intelligence expert Prof Schomaker has long worked on techniques to allow computers to read handwriting from historical materials.

Using a deep learning algorithm, the academics focused on the famous Great Isaiah Scroll, which was found in Qumran Cave 1.

They closely analysed one character – 5,000 handwritten "a" letters – in a task virtually impossible to the human eye.

First, they trained a computer to separate the text from its background. Then they created "heat maps" of the letter to show minute differences in how it was written.

Greyscale image of the Great Isaiah Scroll which was analysed in the research. 
Greyscale image of the Great Isaiah Scroll which was analysed in the research. 

Due to the differences, the results seemed to confirm that at least two writers created the texts. The similar writing styles suggested a common training or origin.

Researchers say the pioneering research is a totally new way to analyse the scroll texts based on physical characteristics. They hope they can now observe on a "micro-level" how individual scribes and their communities worked on the Great Isaiah texts.

"This is very exciting, because this opens a new window on the ancient world that can reveal much more intricate connections between the scribes who produced the scrolls," Prof Popovic said.

"We are now able to identify different scribes," he said. "We will never know their names. But after 70 years of study, this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting."

Updated: April 21, 2021 10:46 PM

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