Artificial Intelligence Helps Crack the Code of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Handwriting Analysis of Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead sea scroll text analysis collage. Credit: Mladen Popović

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered some seventy years ago, are famous for containing the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and many hitherto unknown ancient Jewish texts. But the individual people behind the scrolls have eluded scientists, because the scribes are anonymous. Now, by combining the sciences and the humanities, University of Groningen researchers have cracked the code, which enables them to discover the scribes behind the scrolls. They presented their results in the journal PLOS ONE on April 21, 2021.

The scribes who created the scrolls did not sign their work. Scholars suggested some manuscripts should be attributed to a single scribe based on handwriting. “They would try to find a “smoking gun” in the handwriting, for example, a very specific trait in a letter which would identify a scribe,” explains Mladen Popović, professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. He is also director of the university’s Qumran Institute, dedicated to studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, these identifications are somewhat subjective and often hotly debated.

Scribes

That is why Popović, in his project The Hands that Wrote the Bible which was funded by the European Research Council, teamed up with his colleague Lambert Schomaker, professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Schomaker has long worked on techniques to allow computers to read handwriting, often from historical materials. He also performed studies to investigate how biomechanical traits, like the way in which someone holds a pen or stylus, would affect handwriting.

Analyzing Letters Dead Sea Scrolls

Two 12×12 Kohonen maps (blue colourmaps) of full character aleph and bet from the Dead Sea Scroll collection. Each of the characters in the Kohonen maps is formed from multiple instances of similar characters (shown with a zoomed box with red lines). These maps are useful for chronological style development analysis. In the current study of writer identification, Fraglets (fragmented character shapes) were used instead of full character shapes to achieve more precise (robust) results. Credit: Maruf A. Dhali, University of Groningen

In this study, together with PhD candidate Maruf Dhali, they focused on one scroll in particular: the famous Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) from Qumran Cave 1. The handwriting in this scroll seems near-uniform, yet it has been suggested it was made by two scribes sharing a similar writing style. So how could this be decided? Schomaker: “This scroll contains the letter aleph, or “a”, at least five thousand times. It is impossible to compare them all just by eye.” Computers are well suited to analyze large datasets, like 5,000 handwritten a’s. Digital imaging makes all sorts of computer calculations possible, at the microlevel of characters, such as measuring curvature (called textural), as well as whole characters (called allographic).

Neural network

“The human eye is amazing and presumably takes these levels into account too. This allows experts to “see” the hands of different authors, but that decision is often not reached by a transparent process,” Popović says. “Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for these experts to process the large amounts of data the scrolls provide.” That is why their results are often not conclusive.

Binarization Dead Sea Scrolls

(From left to right) Greyscale image of column 15 of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the corresponding binarized image using BiNet, and the cleaned-corrected image. From the red boxes of the last two images, one can see how the rotation and the geometric transformation is corrected to yield a better image for further processing. Credit: Reprinted from Lim TH, Alexander PS. Volume 1. In: The Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library. Brill; 1995 under a CC BY license, with permission from Brill Publishers, original copyright 1995.

The first hurdle was to train an algorithm to separate the text (ink) from its background (the leather or the papyrus). For this separation, or “binarization,” Dhali developed a state-of-the-art artificial neural network that can be trained using deep learning. This neural network keeps the original ink traces made by the scribe more than 2,000 years ago intact as they appear on the digital images. “This is important because the ancient ink traces relate directly to a person’s muscle movement and are person-specific,” Schomaker explains.

Similarities

Dhali performed the first analytical test of this study. His analysis of textural and allographic features showed that the 54 columns of text in the Great Isaiah Scroll fell into two different groups that were not distributed randomly through the scroll, but were clustered, with a transition around the halfway mark.

Aleph Dead Sea Scrolls

An illustration of how heatmaps of normalized average character shapes are generated for individual letters (in this example: aleph). Credit: Maruf A. Dhali, University of Groningen

With the remark that there might be more than one writer, Dhali then handed the data to Schomaker who then recomputed the similarities between the columns, now using the patterns of letter fragments. This second analytical step confirmed the presence of two different. Several further checks and controls were performed. Schomaker: “When we added extra noise to the data, the result didn’t change. We also succeeded in demonstrating that the second scribe shows more variation within his writing than the first, although their writing is very similar.”

Handwriting

In the third step, Popović, Dhali, and Schomaker have produced a visual analysis. They created “heat maps” that incorporate all the variants of a character across the scroll. Then they produced an averaged version of this character for the first 27 columns and the last 27 columns. Comparing these two average letters by eye shows that they are different. This links the computerized and statistical analysis to human interpretation of the data by approximation, because the heatmaps are neither dependent nor produced from the primary and secondary analyses.

Certain aspects of the scroll and the positioning of the text had led some scholars to suggest that after column 27 a new scribe had started, but this was not generally accepted. Popović: “Now, we can confirm this with a quantitative analysis of the handwriting as well as with robust statistical analyses. Instead of basing judgment on more-or-less impressionistic evidence, with the intelligent assistance of the computer, we can demonstrate that the separation is statistically significant.”

New window

In addition to transforming the paleography of the scrolls — and potentially other ancient manuscript corpora — this study of the Great Isaiah Scroll opens up a totally new way to analyze the Qumran texts based on physical characteristics. Now, researchers can access the microlevel of individual scribes and carefully observe how they worked on these manuscripts.

Popović: “This is very exciting, because this opens a new window on the ancient world that can reveal much more intricate connections between the scribes that produced the scrolls. In this study, we found evidence for a very similar writing style shared by the two Great Isaiah Scroll scribes, which suggests a common training or origin. Our next step is to investigate other scrolls, where we may find different origins or training for the scribes.”

In this way, it will be possible to learn more about the communities that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. “We are now able to identify different scribes,” Popović concludes. “We will never know their names. But after seventy years of study, this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”

Reference: “Artificial intelligence based writer identification generates new evidence for the unknown scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls exemplified by the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa)” by Mladen Popović, Maruf A. Dhali and Lambert Schomaker, 21 April 2021, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0249769

Digital images of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of the Great Isaiah Scroll were kindly provided by Brill Publishers and the Israel Antiquities Authority (the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library).

33 Comments on "Artificial Intelligence Helps Crack the Code of the Dead Sea Scrolls"

  1. I am curious whether the researchers considered whether the original writer could have had a physical issue develop approximately half way through the scroll. Anything from physical body injury to other ailments that may impact writing. With so many other characteristics in writing style being the same, its seems compelling to consider this possibility.

  2. Mark Bryce JD | May 3, 2021 at 7:22 am | Reply

    It is important to note that these are not original manuscripts: these are copies of prior manuscripts. The original as written by Isaiah, or his scribe or scribes, were long since gone when these were made. We need to distinguish carefully between “author” and “scribe.”

  3. Jojo reference

  4. Norm Stewart | May 3, 2021 at 5:20 pm | Reply

    Remember the author is God Himself and scribes simply write what they are told. All of it is a story of God’s redemption and foretelling of Jesus Christ His Son.

  5. I agree with James. It’s possible the same individual could write with their non dominant hand and have heard of people who write a lot do this. Not to mention an injury that would still allow the writer to write with the same hand or perhaps old age or taking a break for a long while before continuing. My writing has changed over the years significantly. The way I used to write my “W”s for example changed from similar to 2″v”s to more like 2 “u”s. This happened as I found it to look nicer.

  6. Thomas t a a albert | May 3, 2021 at 6:26 pm | Reply

    Dam, You guys cant just read your bible and leave things alone can you. You guys can just look at the sky and enjoy the fact its blue. Or even just enjoy the day infront of you can you.

    • A life unexamined is not worth living. Alternatively, deep appreciation for the nuanced, awe-inspiring complexities of the splendor of creation can be a form of worship of its Creator. Either way, ease up

  7. The Real Mark Bryce | May 3, 2021 at 9:05 pm | Reply

    Ha, yeah, Mark, researchers really need YOUR advice…

    • Yeah, I dont think they really care about anyone’s advice. Almost like they put this out here for people to read and shut up. Who would have thought about that?

  8. Seems the Sunday worshipers are a little upset by the fact that this scribe could be more than one which is no big deal because it was written between 3rd bce and after. Just centuries after the duo wrote 40-55 and 56-66 oops I mean Isaiah himself no I mean Lord of hosts did…..

  9. Todd.comRay | May 4, 2021 at 12:33 am | Reply

    I’m Rocking with Norm 💪🙏😉

  10. Thomas, some people find such discussions enjoyable. There is nothing wrong with enjoying education or scrutiny. The bible teaches us to seek wisdom and understanding and to be prudent.

    I find this subject interesting. I also find the comments of possible explanations for the subtle changes in handwriting interesting.

  11. We have but one lifetime on this earth, spend it thanking and praising our creator and his son, sent for our redemption. Lets walk with them!

  12. Wow. These comments made so far show that not one of the authors has a clue about handwriting forensics or more than a 5th-grade aptitude.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | May 4, 2021 at 11:56 am | Reply

      ? More like no one was interested in the science and what was found.

      It confirms that the Dead Sea Scrolls were fragmented over texts, authors and even languages [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls#Scrolls_and_fragments ].

      It fits well with a hypothesis that the invention of this particular superstition was caused by the Hellenistic conquest of the area. The real funny is that the invented priest author Manetho which similarly made up Egypt history after the Roman conquest (likely under Ptolemy II) dug up a real event, the South West Asian (“semite”) conquest of Egypt under the Hyksos rule. In that case there were written history and it seems to be evidenced by archeological finds (AFAIK), and that – in the “religio-history” tradition – could be the root to the still existing antisemitism 3.5 kyrs later! To borrow from the shunned group: “Oy vey!” Religion is the inventor of “evil”, indeed.

  13. Atom miller | May 5, 2021 at 7:06 am | Reply

    GOD is ALL that Matters. All known matter in the universe is GOD/unconditional love! Matter does not discriminate, we do. Matter does not hold back, or choose sides, we do. The imbalance between matter/GOD and antimatter is an application issue on our own part each and every one of us. Our entire economy and all injustices are a result of antimatter that we create individually by way of greed and intollerance. Just because it can’t be observed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exsist! Antimatter gives people an advantage over one another. Commonly referred to as “the run around” in order for the balance of antimatter and matter to be restored every individual would have to conduct themselves with the utmost of integrity. Be honest and upright at all times like matter is. If someone asks you for food and you have the ability to give it to them, but you respond with a rock or say “may God bless you” what glory is that to God? You just turned into antimater. Here is your sign.

  14. I think it is impossible to name the scribes who wrote the text, but finding out that more than one scribe wrote a particular section is interesting indeed. I see it no different than a coin collection of a certain coin, of a certain year from all the different Mint’s that produced them. Useful, I don’t know. Satisfying, to some it is very satisfying.

  15. Handed down thru time, this is the essential of what this ia all about. We all know the content but to know how it was penned is a great knowledge to obtain. Every lil step in understanding how to investigate can only help in the long run investigating other ancient manuscripts. Very cool article! Thanks

  16. It’s debatable. First it is an unproven AI system that isn’t fully tested, and second with the way things are going in the world between the new fusion technology, and the FTL tech that NASA is working on. I think I will just wait until they create a time machine so I can just go back in time and ask for myself what the true translation is.

  17. Yep I also agree with James. Ya know I have noticed that when I’m in a hurry or bothered by something my hand writing is always different. Parkinson disease or something close to that nature could play a huge roll in this and I believe this person might have been left handed probably ? Never know really… Also for the ones who think we should leave this stuff alone an stick with the bible. I suggest you pray for a more opened mind because the things that are about to unravel will make the dead and living flip the hell out… Imagine passing over to the other side to find out your life and everyone else have simply been lied to and as a matter of fact the whole world was lied to. People could not handle the truth. Just like the moon and Lucifer and Jesus Christ and when you die hell isn’t what you think nor is heaven… People are going to flip out… So as I had to come out of my comfort zone which is The Best Thing To Do and prepare yourself for change. People can not accept change so prepare for it because it’s going to happen regardless if you like it or not. I was born into Christian beliefs but I do not call myself a Christian ANYMORE… I’m blessed to see and know what I know now. I would become a evil monster people call demons if I died not knowing what I know now…

  18. Since a couple folks want to take an opportunity to bash the Bible. Bash this. If the Bible is bullsh*t your life, this world, and everyone in it is. Too. We are part of a giant stagnating seemingly unending dumpster of Evil, pain, and despair.

    But I’m thankful folks WILL BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR DEEDS, INCLUDING MINE.

    Without a final judgement nothing makes sense. The Bible tells us all about that

  19. WHO CARES

  20. Pete in the sticks | May 6, 2021 at 8:25 pm | Reply

    Thanks to woke and blm , nothing matters , history is being rewritten, in this socialist society, christ and god dont exist , wake up people

  21. The truth 404 | May 6, 2021 at 9:16 pm | Reply

    🤣🤣🤣🤣
    So, why is it that this AI only cracked the code of the dead sea scrolls. Why notany other ancient text?
    That proves this is an agenda to help keep the man made Bible looking like it’s the word of “God”, when it’s actually a false doctrine created to control people.
    Show me how intelligent this AI truly is by using it on other ancient text other than that bs book created by the white man.

  22. What about numerical code.
    Each identical symbol represents a digit 1-50 or the number of symbols specifically.

    Maybe orders for goods, or like the underground railroad numbers of people any system that relied on numbers could use this type of vode

  23. A N N U N A K I

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