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The University Magazine

New life for Dead Sea Scrolls, Archimedes

RIT’s reputation for using modern imaging technologies to illuminate historical documents began with the late Robert Johnston, former dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts and, later, a visiting scholar in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. His use of imaging to recover information from artifacts led to RIT’s involvement in the 1990s with the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish texts that hold clues to the early development of Christianity. Johnston became involved in the project after traveling to Israel and was among the first to suggest the use of digital imaging technology in deciphering the scrolls.

Roger Easton
Roger L. Easton Jr.

In 1996, Johnston, Roger L. Easton Jr., professor of imaging science at RIT, and Keith Knox, currently an imaging senior scientist and Boeing Technical Fellow at Boeing LTS, digitally recovered several characters from the Temple Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The RIT team originally used digital images created from color transparencies of the Temple Scroll and, later, at Princeton Theological Seminary, imaged actual fragments of other scrolls borrowed from the Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, N.J. The scientists used Johnston’s first-generation Kodak DCS-100 digital camera with filters over the lens to capture multispectral data – information visible on different wavelengths – that they processed using digital imaging software. Their efforts successfully enhanced the contrast between text and parchment for scholarly study.

In November 1997, Johnston, Easton and Knox were keynote speakers at the Second Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins, one of two international gatherings celebrating the 50th anniversary of the scrolls’ discovery. RIT’s involvement in the project was highlighted in documentaries produced by British Broadcasting Corp. and the Discovery Channel.

In May 2004, Johnston, and Lucanus Morgan ’01 (imaging science) digitized another section of the Temple Scroll housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as part of the Princeton Dead Seas Scrolls Project.

Coincidence and luck led to RIT’s involvement with its next big imaging project: the Archimedes Palimpsest. This 10th century Byzantine manuscript is a transcription of seven treatises by Greek mathematician Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), including “On Floating Bodies” and the only extant copy of his “Method of Mechanical Theorems,” which combined mathematics and physics. In April 1229, a monk scraped away Archimedes’ theories and drawings, cutting and rebinding the parchment for use as a prayer book, a common practice resulting in an overwritten book or “palimpsest.”

Archimedes Palimpsest
The Archimedes Palimpsest as it appears in normal light. (Photograph: Produced by Rochester Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University. Copyright resides with the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest.)

Palimpsests were often bound from random pages of discarded manuscripts, making for occasional surprises during document recovery. Scholars now attribute 10 pages of the Archimedes Palimpsest to the Greek orator Hyperides. Another section discusses Aristotle’s work.

Held by a French family for 70 years, and thought to be lost, the manuscript resurfaced and was sold in 1998 for $2 million at Christie’s auction house in New York City. RIT’s original invitation to image pages of the palimpsest came when a consultant in rare books and manuscripts to Christie’s asked the auction house staff in London if they knew anyone who could image the palimpsest for the auction catalog. One staff member suggested her brother-in-law, Keith Knox.

Following the auction of the Archimedes Palimpsest, the anonymous buyer entrusted the manuscript to the care of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore for conservation and study. RIT’s second chance to work on the document came in 2000, when Johnston, Easton and Knox, then at Xerox Corp., became part of an international team of scholars, conservators and scientists invested in the recovery of the overwritten document.

The RIT team used a variety of ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths to separate the script and drawings from the liturgical text. They manipulated the images with special software at the Xerox Digital Imaging Technology Center.

In 2003, Public Broadcasting Service’s popular science program Nova featured the Archimedes Palimpsest, including RIT’s imaging applications. In the same year, Advanced Imaging Magazine recognized RIT’s efforts as one of the imaging solutions of the year.

According to Easton, the ongoing project has successfully extracted approximately 80 percent of the text using multispectral imaging. In another attempt to recover the text, scientists at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, a division of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), applied X-ray fluorescence imaging to unreadable segments of the document to trace the iron content in the ink. In August 2006, the Archimedes Palimpsest Imaging Team joined with SLAC and the Exploratorium in San Francisco to Webcast the X-ray fluorescence imaging of the palimpsest at SLAC.

Project director William Noel of the Walters Art Museum, and Reviel Netz, a Stanford University scholar, are writing a book about the saga of the Archimedes Palimpsest expected to publish in 2007.

Susan Gawlowicz