Digital imaging and unique technological methods known as virtual unwrapping are being credited with revealing to the world an ancient Dead Sea scroll dating back to the first centuries.

Prof. Brent Seales and his team from the University of Kentucky say the text in the ancient Ein Gedi scroll – the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified noninvasively— is the earliest copy of a Pentateuchal book, Leviticus, ever found in a Holy Ark.

“This work opens a new window through which we can look back through time by reading materials that were thought lost through damage and decay,” said Seales, who is a professor and a chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky. “There are so many other unique and exciting materials that may yet give up their secrets – we are only beginning to discover what they may hold.”

Seales and his team have discovered and restored text on five complete wraps of the animal skin scroll. The scroll cannot be physically opened for inspection for fear it will fall apart.

“We are releasing all our data on the scroll from Ein Gedi: the scans, our geometric analysis, the final texture. We think that the scholarly community will have interest in the data and the process as well as our results,” Seales said.

The software pipeline, referred to as “virtual unwrapping,” reveals text within damaged objects by using data from high resolution scanning, which represents the internal structure of the 3-D object, to digitally segment, texture and flatten the scroll.

In 2015, Seales and his team revealed the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus in the scroll, which is at least 1,500 years old and was badly burned at some point. Due to its charred condition, it was not possible to either preserve or decipher it. However, high resolution scanning and virtual unwrapping has allowed Seales to recover substantial ink-based text at such high quality that Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholars can now conduct critical textual analysis.

“With the aid of the amazing tomography technology we are now able to zero in on the early history of the biblical text, as the Ein Gedi scroll has been dated to the first centuries of the common era,” said Hebrew University’s Prof. Emanuel Tov, co-author and leading scholar on textual criticism of Hebrew and Greek bibles.

The scroll was unearthed in 1970 in archaeological excavations in the synagogue at Ein Gedi, headed by the late Prof. Dan Barag and Prof. Ehud Netzer of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and Yosef Porath of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

“The discovery of text in the Ein Gedi scroll absolutely astonished us; we were certain it was a shot in the dark, but the most advanced technologies have brought this cultural treasure back to life,” said co-author Pnina Shor, curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Project. “Now, in addition to preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls for future generations, we can bequeath part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year old synagogue.”