Through the use of imaging technology, a charred 1,700-year-old scroll was revealed to be a copy of the book of Leviticus. The En-Gedi scroll had been damaged by fire about 1,400 years ago but a process called "virtual unwrapping" has made the contents of the artifact readable.
Physically unfurling the scroll would have resulted in its destruction so the experts digitally scanned the artifact and produced a flat image.
"We're reading a real scroll," said lead study author W. Brent Seales. "It hasn't been read for millennia. Many thought it was probably impossible to read," he added.
Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky, had been working for the last 13 years to find ways to read the text inside ancient scrolls. He was inspired to work on the project because he wanted to read the charred scrolls found at Herculaneum. The researchers said that it may be possible to read more scrolls using the new method.
"The En-Gedi manuscript represents the first severely damaged, ink-based scroll to be unrolled and identified non-invasively," the researchers noted in their study.
The artifact was found in 1970 in En-Gedi, a nature reserve in Israel near the Dead Sea. Researchers said the site was destroyed by a fire around 600 A.D. The researchers wrote that each scroll was "completely burned and crushed, had turned into chunks of charcoal that continued to disintegrate every time they were touched."
The scroll is the earliest copy of Leviticus ever found in a Holy Ark. Experts discovered that the document only contained consonants and no vowels. According to Dr. Emanuel Tov, a co-author of the study, this meant that it was written before the ninth century A.D., when symbols for Hebrew vowels were first produced.
Carbon-14 dating placed the artifact at around 300 A.D. but Hebrew experts on paleaography dated the document to around 100 A.D.
The text in the ancient document was discovered to be identical to the medieval Hebrew Bibles known as the Masoretic Texts which are still in use today.
"This is quite amazing for us," Tov said. "That in 2,000 years, this text has not changed," he continued.