How Technology Helps Us to Understand the Ancient World

The Dead Sea Scrolls on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Israel Government Press Office

Technology blogs often focus the latest innovations and how technology changes our world around us today. However, these great advances in technology can also help us to shed light on our ancient past, helping us to understand the significance of great archeological finds and making this information accessible to far greater audiences than ever before.

A perfect example of this is work done with the Dead Sea Scrolls. These texts were discovered primarily in clay pots in caves near Qumran by The Dead Sea. First discovered around 1946 to 1947, the texts have provided great insight into the sociological, linguistic, and religious world from over two thousand years ago. Since their discovery, scholars have dealt with issues of the scrolls’ significance, their place of origin, and more recently, the difficulty of making the very fragile texts available to as large an audience as possible.

Scholars examining the Dead Sea Scroll fragments.

The scrolls have been the subject of much scholarly controversy. In the last few decades, some of this has focused on the question about whether the scrolls were produced in the Qumran area or whether they were created elsewhere, such as Jerusalem, and then moved to Qumran. This is a question that is being looked at through the lenses of technology and science. For instance, in 2008, scroll fragments were analyzed by Israeli and German research teams using advanced X-ray and electromagnetic spectrum analysis tools to help determine the mineral content of the texts. This was then compared to the somewhat unique and known mineral content of the Dead Sea. Though hampered by some early mishandling of the scrolls when they were first discovered, the analysis showed that there was a strong possibility that the parchment itself was produced near the Dead Sea.

Another issue has been how to allow scholars and non-scholars to have access to the content of the scrolls, given their fragile condition. Various projects involving infrared photography have created images of the scrolls, first put into book form and later onto websites. Most recently, Google and the Israel Museum have used advanced photography techniques to make very high resolution images of the scrolls available online. The images produced are so fine that details not seen by the naked eye can now explored.

Today’s incredible array of technology is helping us in many different ways to explore our ancient past.

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