Virtually Unwrapping the En-Gedi Scroll
The idea that a blackened, 2,000-year-old rolled-up papyrus scroll could somehow be unfurled and read today almost seems like a miracle.
It even seems that way to Brent Seales, the University of Kentucky computer science professor who came up with a way of doing it.
On Sunday night, Seales and his work will be featured on an episode of the longrunning CBS news magazine show “60 Minutes.” The show airs at 7 p.m.
In A.D. 79, the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii and the nearby town of Herculaneum with it. Centuries later, archaeologists uncovered the sites, which included a library of 1,800 papyrus scrolls at Herculaneum.
But so far, no one has been able to read them, because they’re too fragile to unroll.
Enter Seales, who developed methods of using computer imaging to decipher ancient scrolls without physically unrolling them.
“The history of the unwrapping of the Herculaneum Scrolls is littered with failures,” Seales told the television crew. “Everyone that had tried to open the scrolls left behind a hideous trail of fragmentary result.”
He hopes he and a team of UK students will be able to break that pattern.
The method Seales uses to create digital images of the scrolls is the same as a medical CT scan, only with higher resolution that allows scholars to see much more detail. Seales has developed computer software that allows researchers to manipulate and flatten the images so the text written on the papyrus can be read.
Seales went to Paris, where many of the Herculaneum scrolls are housed, to collect images in 2009, but the technology had not yet been perfected.
Then in 2015, Seales helped scholars in Jerusalem by using his “virtual unwrapping” technique to allow them to read a charred scroll that confirmed that the Book of Leviticus as it appears in Hebrew Bibles today is the same as it was 2,000 years ago.
“That was really a breakthrough for the method,” he said. “It proved that the method that we’ve been working on worked.”
In January, Seales was featured in a New York Times story on his efforts to help decipher an ancient codex, or early book, containing the biblical Acts of the Apostles and possibly another early Christian work at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
He said the goal is to take manuscripts that are worthless in their current unreadable state and unlock them to find texts that will be venerated for future generations.
“What I want to do is inspire the world’s libraries and museums to do it themselves,” Seales said.
He said it’s fitting the “60 Minutes” episode will air on Easter Sunday, since his work is centered on bringing back what was presumed lost.
“There is kind of a resurrection theme,” he said.
Seales has been working on the process for 25 years, and he said progress only happens when he has three things: access to the fragile literary materials, which are often housed at foreign libraries and museums; a technical approach that works; and adequate funding, which allows him to engage UK students in the work.
Having all three aligned at once is a challenge.
Seales said his most pressing need right now is funding, and he expressed frustration with what he sees as an emphasis on athletics over academic pursuits at the university.
“UK hasn’t really helped in the last few years,” he said. “We do sports well, and we also can do this well.”
He said he’s turned to philanthropic organizations for help.
“There are manuscripts all over the world that are in similar states of unreadability,” said Christy Chapman, who works in Seales’ Digital Restoration Initiative in the UK College of Engineering. “You have a whole body of knowledge that is still hidden.
“It would be a shame if it died on the vine just because funding has become very challenging.”