RIT Professor and Alumnus Digitize Dead Sea Scrolls




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An invitation to digitize a section of the Dead Sea Scrolls was too tempting for a Rochester Institute of Technology professor and his assistant to resist.

Robert Johnston, dean and professor emeritus and special assistant to the provost at RIT, and Lucanus Morgan, an RIT imaging science alumnus, flew to Tel Aviv last March to work on a portion of the ancient religious document housed in vaults in the Hekal HasSepher (“The Shrine of the Book”) in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Their trip spanned a 10-day pocket of quiet in between suicide bombings and the assassination of a Hamas movement leader.

“We had to be careful—You could hear gunfire. No riding on buses or dining in restaurants,” Johnston says. “There are checkpoints everywhere you go armed by soldiers with Uzis. Even people going on dates carry machine guns.”

Morgan agreed. “Most everyone is on edge. Almost everyone carries a weapon.”

They traveled to Israel at the request of James Charlesworth, professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and editor and director of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project. Charlesworth asked Johnston and Morgan to digitize a portion of the manuscript known as the Temple Scroll to illustrate his latest book. This fragmented section runs more than 20 feet, with the largest continuous piece measuring 12 feet.

“You can’t bend them or touch them because they would simply fall apart,” Johnston says.

A combination of time, mold and humidity ravaged the leather scrolls. Although different theories exist, Johnston believes the scrolls were hidden from invading Romans in 70 B.C. Bedouins of the Tamara tribe discovered them in 20th century and sold them as antiquities.

Johnston and Morgan, an imaging scientist at ITT, set up a color infrared camera over the scrolls and used separate filters to capture data on different layers of the electromagnetic spectrum, the range of visible and invisible light.

“We never touched it,” Morgan says of the manuscript. “Technicians moved it with tweezers.”

Morgan laid the digital images on top of each other, registering the characters, and stitched the images together. Ongoing computer processing already has revealed new information, he says.

RIT was first associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1980s, during Johnston’s tenure as interim director of RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. Johnston—a pioneer in digital capture and digital processing of degraded images—and a group of imaging scientists from CIS and Xerox Corp. digitized the manuscripts for Princeton. A photograph of a digitized image crediting the three partners hangs in an antiquities shop in Bethlehem owned by Kando, the son of the man who rediscovered the scrolls.

Johnston and Morgan’s trip was funded by Princeton University with partial support from the Xerox Foundation. A $4,000 grant from the Foundation on Christian Origins in Durham, N.C., supported the digital processing.