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Hidden Text Uncovered

Multispectral Imaging Uncovers Hidden Text in Fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls

Four Dead Sea scroll fragments from the Reed Collection in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, which were previously thought to be blank, do in fact contain text.

Reed Collection Ryl4Q22 as it looks using multispectral imaging. Image credit: University of Manchester.

Reed Collection Ryl4Q22 as it looks using multispectral imaging. Image credit: University of Manchester.

In the 1950s, a collection of Dead Sea scroll fragments was gifted by the Jordanian government to University of Leeds researcher Ronald Reed. It was assumed that the pieces were ideal for scientific tests, as they were blank and relatively worthless.

The fragments were studied and published by Dr. Reed and his student John Poole, and then stored safely away.

In 1997, the Reed Collection was donated to the University of Manchester through the initiative of Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis, George Brooke.

In the new study, King’s College London Professor Joan Taylor and her colleagues from the Network for the Study of Dispersed Qumran Cave Artefacts and Archival Sources (DQCAAS) decided to photograph all of the existing fragments over 1 cm that appear blank to the naked eye, using multispectral imaging.

The researchers imaged a total of 51 fragments and identified six for further detailed investigation. Of these, it was established that four have readable Hebrew/Aramaic text written in carbon-based ink.

Reed Collection Ryl4Q22 as it looks under magnification. Image credit: University of Manchester.

Reed Collection Ryl4Q22 as it looks under magnification. Image credit: University of Manchester.

The most substantial fragment, Ryl4Q22, has the remains of four lines of text with 15-16 letters, most of which are only partially preserved, but the word Shabbat (Sabbath) can be clearly read. This text may be related to the Biblical book of Ezekiel (46:1-3).

One piece with text is the edge of a parchment scroll section, with sewn thread, and the first letters of two lines of text may be seen to the left of this binding.

“Looking at one of the fragments with a magnifying glass, I thought I saw a small, faded letter — a lamed, the Hebrew letter ‘L’,” Professor Taylor said.

“Frankly, since all these fragments were supposed to be blank and had even been cut into for leather studies, I also thought I might be imagining things. But then it seemed maybe other fragments could have very faded letters too.”

“With new techniques for revealing ancient texts now available, I felt we had to know if these letters could be exposed.”

“There are only a few on each fragment, but they are like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you find under a sofa.”

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