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3D scanning deciphers ancient Hebrew scroll

A fragile scroll discovered in 1970 on the western shore of the Dead Sea has finally been deciphered, revealing it to be part of a Torah scroll.

The charred scroll. Israel Antiquities Authority

A scroll that had been burnt to charcoal inside the Ein Gedi synagogue some 1,500 years ago has now been read for the first time, thanks to modern technology.

Ein Gedi is an oasis located on the western shore of the Dead Sea, where fresh water flows from underground year-round. Over the millennia, it has been home to various human settlements, including a Jewish village with a synagogue erected in the third century.

One of the additions to the synagogue, made in the fourth century, was a niche in the northern wall, which housed an ark, a receptacle to contain the synagogue's scrolls of Torah. The Torah is comprised of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy -- the first five books of the Bible.

An archaeological expedition to the Ein Gedi synagogue uncovered the ancient scroll in 1970 -- the oldest scroll discovered since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found between 1946 and 1956. The Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from between around 408 BC to 308 AD, however, were in good condition.

The Ein Gedi scroll -- carbon dated to the sixth century -- was not. It was burned and blackened into charcoal -- unable to be unrolled and deciphered.

"Ein Gedi was a Jewish village in the Byzantine period (fourth-seventh century) and had a synagogue with an exquisite mosaic floor and a Holy Ark. The settlement was completely burnt to the ground, and none of its inhabitants ever returned to reside there again, or to pick through the ruins in order to salvage valuable property," Sefi Porath, the archaeologist who found the scroll in 1970, said in a statement.

"We have no information regarding the cause of the fire, but speculation about the destruction ranges from Bedouin raiders from the region east of the Dead Sea to conflicts with the Byzantine government."

Using X-ray imaging, 45 years after the scroll's discovery and after a year of very careful work, an international team of researchers has managed to find out what message the scroll contains: the first eight verses of the Book of Leviticus, laying down the rules for ritual sacrifice.

The digitally unrolled scroll received from the University of Kentucky. Israel Antiquities Authority

The scroll was stored in a climate-controlled vault by the Israel Antiquities Authority and carefully scanned by Israeli company Merkel Technologies, which volunteered the use of its equipment and expertise for the project. Using a micro computed-tomography X-ray scanner, high-resolution 3D images were taken of the scroll's interior.

These scans were then sent overseas to the University of Kentucky, where computer science professor Brent Searles had developed digital imaging software that allowed the scans to be virtually unrolled, making the text legible.

The find is remarkable because it marks the first time that a Torah scroll has been found inside an ancient synagogue, let alone an ark.

"This discovery absolutely astonished us: We were certain it was just a shot in the dark but decided to try and scan the burnt scroll anyway," curator and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Dead Sea Scrolls projects Pnina Shor said. "Now, not only can we bequeath the Dead Sea Scrolls to future generations, but also a part of the Bible from a Holy Ark of a 1,500-year old synagogue!"

The text of the scroll reads:

The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the Lord, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. If the offering is a burnt-offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron's sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire.Aaron's sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar. (Leviticus 1:1-8)