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Bringing the past into high-resolution view

For Road Trip 2015, CNET takes a look at the tech revolution helping historians in Israel reveal more about our past.


Check out all the places we've been on CNET's Road Trip 2015.

JERUSALEM -- Michael Lieber picked up the Auschwitz Album, a one-of-a-kind book of photographs documenting Hungarian Jews' experiences in the Nazi concentration camp.

Lieber wasn't wearing gloves. He wasn't even being particularly careful while flipping through the tan pages. One loose picture fell to the tile floor and he blithely scooped it up, slightly bending it in the process.

Noticing my alarm, Lieber gave me a cheerful look and revealed his ploy. "This is not the Auschwitz Album," he said, smiling at me. The book was a spot-on replica created in Yad Vashem -- Israel's memorial to Holocaust victims -- using high-resolution digital photography and a dash of handicraft. The idea was to give people the physical sense of flipping through a historical artifact and, perhaps, forge an emotional connection with the past.

"We need to remain relevant to a generation that is changing all the time and acquires information differently," Lieber, Yad Vashem's chief information officer, told me earlier in his nearby office. "Technology is a bridge. We have to understand how that bridge works."


Yossi Ben-David, a digitization expert at Yad Vashem, works on creating a high-resolution copy of an heirloom family diary.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Over the past decade, the mission of the world's libraries, archives and museums has moved beyond just protecting historical collections. Thanks to a variety of digitizing tools, it's now possible to create precise copies of significant artwork, documents and antiquities, and to make those copies available for others to study and appreciate.

"The museum is no longer a fortress," said Susan Hazan, curator of new media at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. "That means a lot more people get to see a lot more things, and that is only a good thing."

The ersatz Auschwitz Album -- which went full circle from physical to digital and back to physical -- was just one example of the new digital projects now underway in Jerusalem, home to many of the oldest and most culturally significant collections in the world.

Details tell a story

The Israel Antiquities Authority maintains a lab building in the Har Hotzvim industrial park, home to many of the city's science and technology companies, including the Israeli branches of Intel and Cisco and local drug maker Teva Pharmaceutical.

The IAA office at first seemed entirely out of place among all the chipmakers and software firms. Hallways there were full of dusty wooden tables covered with stacks of pottery shards from recent excavations. Inside the rooms, workers heated beakers on hotplates to clean ancient coins and used chemicals to brighten up metal pieces. The basement looked like the final scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," crammed with boxes upon boxes of reconstructed pottery.


Workers surrounded by boxes of ancient pottery in the basement floor of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Har Hotzvim offices.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

But one room contained a 3D-imaging camera, worth about $70,000, that the IAA bought two years ago to bring some high-tech smarts to the government agency's decades-old work of recording ancient pottery, flints and other objects found in excavations.

On the day of my visit last month, Avshalom Karasik -- who heads IAA's 3D laboratory -- worked with the 3D scanner to create fresh images of tiny, blackened 3,000-year-old grape seeds.

Using an analysis program Karasik developed, called Pottery3D, he and other researchers have uncovered nuances in the pottery that can reveal, say, a tribe's movements, ethnic makeup and social interactions. Archaeologists could look at the workmanship and symmetry of certain pieces to decipher whether they were made for kings or paupers. Distinctive materials can help historians trace ancient trade routes and diplomatic connections. And a pot's recurring design characteristics help them posit whether a piece was made by a father, his son or perhaps a nearby neighbor. Such nuances help historians ask new and different questions to better understand our past.

"Everything is in the pottery," Karasik told me. "My dream is a Google engine for pottery research."

Connecting the dots

Yad Vashem guide Eva Lutkiewicz led me into the Hall of Names, a large room capped by a dome of 600 pictures of Holocaust victims.

Rows of books surrounded the central display, each book filled with testimonials and remembrances of victims. There were over 2.6 million of these documents held in the hall.

Yad Vashem's Haim Gertner shows a Nazi-made prisoner card in an archive room on the museum's campus.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

These testimonials may hold meaning for those who knew the victims. For the rest of us, they aren't enough, said Haim Gertner, director of Yad Vashem's archives division.

"In many cases, there was no one left to tell us what happened," Gertner said. "I feel today that I am confronted by a huge puzzle that has many black holes."

At his desk, Gertner walked me through the case of Mr. Grinman. On his computer screen, Gertner showed me a testimonial written in 1957 by a fellow townsperson that mentioned Grinman, though the writer didn't know Grinman's first name and only offered nicknames of his three children. From these meager clues, Gertner showed me how Yad Vashem researchers pieced together Grinman's life, using government documents, including his passport at the Latvian Ministry of Interior and work history at the Ministry of Education. His name was Boris Grinman, from Liepaja, Latvia, a city where nearly all Jewish residents were murdered.

A Yad Vashem worker at a digital scanning station.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Yad Vashem has millions of names and photographs, an ever-growing archive of 180 million documents and servers stuffed with a petabyte of data -- the equivalent of a 2,000-year-long music playlist -- making it the world's largest Holocaust archive. The institution hopes to draw new connections within these archives by digitizing its documents and developing software tools that can sift through all that information.

The goal, said Gertner, is to "give them back their faces," just as Yad Vashem did with Grinman.

Gertner took me downstairs to a climate-controlled archive room kept behind several sealed doors, where he showed me a Nazi-produced prisoner card and a handwritten Jewish calendar made during the war. Nearby, in a converted bomb shelter, a handful of employees worked at scanning stations to digitally copy letters, notes and other files. In another area on the grounds, workers converted video and audio materials, some from decades-old formats.

"We digitize everything," Lieber said. "Everything has to be digital. That's No. 1."

The digital sea scrolls

In the 1970s, the Israel Antiquities Authority started looking at its collection of Dead Sea Scrolls -- widely considered the most important religious texts in the Western world and the archaeological find of the 20th century -- with a fresh sense of urgency.

Before their discovery between 1947 and 1956 in the Judean Desert, the scrolls had been preserved by the hot, dry air of the mountain caves where they lay hidden for more than 2,000 years. But without realizing it, conservators had been inappropriately handling the fragile parchment. Adhesive tape used to join fragments had damaged the pieces and the pressure from placing fragments in glass cases cause the parchment to darken and the edges to gelatinize.


The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library's spectral-imaging camera.

Shai Halevi/IAA

Prompted in part by the devastating 1966 flood of Florence, Italy, which destroyed millions of rare books and artworks, conservators in Israel began to rethink ways to preserve the ancient parchments. Three years ago, the IAA -- together with the Google Research and Development Center in Israel -- launched the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library to record and reveal these fragile parchments, down to their ancient ink strokes.

Inside the IAA's offices in the Israel Museum campus, Orit Rosengarten, an employee with the Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, escorted me into a dark room.

IAA photographer Shai Halevi shows off how the spectral-imaging camera works.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

"Hi, Shai," she said, looking over at Shai Halevi, the project's photographer hunched over two computer screens. All of the IAA's pictures of the Dead Sea Scrolls are taken in this room. The space was windowless, with gray walls, a few computers and -- behind a set of black curtains -- a custom-built spectral-imaging camera aimed at a black table.

To protect the fragile scrolls from harsher white light, Halevi photographs the parchment using an array of red, blue and green lights, and then creates a composite that looks like a white-light image. The scrolls are also photographed from different angles, to capture every wrinkle and hidden letter.

A conservator wearing a white lab coat and blue medical gloves marched into the room, drew back the curtains and carefully took a tiny sliver of brown parchment from the camera table. She placed the fragment on a piece of white, acid-free cardboard, which held a group of other parchment fragments kept in place with hinges made of Japanese tissue paper. Just as quickly as she entered, the conservator hid the fragments under another piece of cardboard and shuttled her cargo out of the room.

Since 2011, the IAA has used this camera system to shoot thousands of images of its Dead Sea Scrolls collection. The effort allows the authority to monitor its preservation efforts and create a permanent record for future generations.

"That's kind of the motto: To use the best-possible, advanced technology for these most ancient treasures," Pnina Shor, a long-time archaeologist who now heads the Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, later told me.

IAA's Pnina Shor expects to add more tech into her agency's archeological work.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

This work, though, led to an unexpected byproduct. Around the same time the IAA was creating digital images of the scrolls, Google's Israel team partnered with Yad Vashem to put 130,000 high-resolution archival photos online to allow people across the world to find and comment on the historic images. The search-engine giant soon after approached the IAA and the Israel Museum with the proposal to take their Dead Sea Scrolls images and distribute them on the Internet.

For the first time, scholars and students could view and search hundreds of these manuscripts, without having to come to Jerusalem.

These two efforts, along with an arts project in London, eventually led to what became the Google Cultural Institute, which today organizes and distributes millions of digital copies of artwork, artifacts and archives from around the world.

"Once you make technology and content available, then suddenly you democratize many things -- even the notion of being a scholar," Yossi Matias, head of Google's Israel research and development center, told me at Google's offices in Tel Aviv.

Now, Shor sees the potential of testing the DNA of parchment fragments and using artificial intelligence to piece together scroll fragments. That would have been unimaginable during her early archeological fieldwork days decades ago in Israel's Negev desert.

"You just need to be open-minded and think," Shor said. "The sky's the limit."