Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls all over again


The lights went out, and conversation quieted to whispers. Red, green, gold, blue … each flash was neon-vivid in the dark. Cutting-edge 21st century technology is meeting biblical scrolls more than 2000 years old at the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls have traveled from Israel to St. Paul as part of a seven-month exhibit. Discovered by a shepherd in caves near the ancient settlement of Qumran in 1947, the scrolls are the oldest hand-scribed Bible. Fifteen of more than 900 scrolls traveled from Israel to Minnesota for the exhibit, displayed in three separate groups of five. Each group of scrolls is on exhibit for a very limited time, explained Pnina Shor, Curator of Dead Sea Scrolls Projects for the Israel Antiquities Authority. Shor said that exhibition is hard on the ancient artifacts and “the scrolls must relax after exhibition.”

The photography took place at the changing of the scrolls – when the couriers and curators from the Israel Antiquities Authority brought the final set of five and took home the second set. St. Paul was a good site to test the process, with the scrolls here for the exhibit, the IAA contingent coming for the exchange, and the California company transporting their equipment across half a continent rather than halfway around the world.

Megavision’s website describes the technology used:

High- resolution photography and multi-spectral imaging [capture] high resolution images over 12 or more spectral bands from the near UV to the near IR. The spectral bands are created not by using band pass filters to filter reflected light, but by using narrow-band LED illumination which subjects the treasure to only the light energy that is required to expose a highly sensitive monochrome sensor.

The photographic images displayed on a wide computer screen are brown-gold, with black Hebrew script, just the way they look on the black background beneath the camera. All of the images produced with different parts of the light spectrum have been digitally combined, explains Ken Boydston, president of MegaVision, who is demonstrating the photography along with Greg Bearman of SnapShot Spectra. On the screen, many times larger than life, we can see faint lines, and the script marching along beneath them. Boydston zooms in on the edge of one fragment, where we see a tiny, illegible blotch.

The next image is black-and-white, the infra-red version of the same scroll fragments. The computer zooms in on the same blotch at the edge of the fragment of scroll. Under the infrared imaging, the blotch resolves into a shin, a Hebrew letter. From the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 until now, this shin has been hidden, invisible to the eyes of scholars.

Eventually, Shor said, all of the scrolls will be photographed. The purpose is two-fold, a balance between conservation for the future and allowing access for scholars to study them. The scrolls were last photographed in the 1950s. Today’s technology one day will grant access to scholars around the world.

The scrolls have been exhibited in U.S. museums just 13 times. The Science Museum exhibit ends October 24. For ticket information, call 651-221-9444 or visit the museum’s website. For further information about the Dead Sea Scrolls, visit the Israeli Antiquities Authority website.