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Meeting the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls18 October 2013, by Alexandra Gowling
In another example of what sounds like science fiction actually being science fact, researchers at the University of Groningen want to use artificial intelligence to "read" the handwriting on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Mladen Popović, director of the university’s Qumran Institute, believes it is possible to differentiate between the individuals who wrote and copied the manuscripts 2.000 years ago. He calls it "literally shaking their hands."
Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the most important archaeological finding in history. They were discovered mid-last century in caves near Qumran on the West Bank.
They comprise over a thousand manuscripts from the period around the beginning of the Christian era and provide a unique insight into the creation of what later became the Bible.
"We know the content of the rolls," said Popović, "but we also want to know about the world behind the manuscripts. Who wrote the text or texts? And what was the writing culture like? Answers to these questions will bring us closer to the origins of our own culture."
To find answers to his questions, Popović is working with Lambert Schomaker, the scientific director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute of the University of Groningen.
They have developed a system to access historical and handwritten archives, which they have called MONK.
All the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been entered into MONK, which must now learn to recognise the different letters, words and handwriting.
"MONK sees more than you can with the naked eye. The system can also take into account muscle strength, pen control and the materials used. This means we can trace the unique characteristics of each individual writer," explained Popović.
Photo by Flickr user Ken and Nyetta
Popović and Schomaker want to involve a much wider audience in their research, so they are appealing to the public to help support them through their crowdfunding project.
"There is a lot of interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and their history. Using crowdfunding, we hope not only to get this project off the ground faster with the money we raise, but also that people will feel that they are participating in a concrete way."
Popović hopes to raise 20.000 euros through the University of Groningen’s own crowdfunding site. "Every donation helps," he said. "Even a small amount will help us to continue to analyse as many documents as possible and to set up a solid database of letter and word styles."
Depending on the size of the donation, donors can also receive something in return, perhaps an image of a letter from the Dead Sea Scrolls analysed by MONK, an afternoon analysing texts themselves or a living room lecture by Popović.
See for yourself
The Dead Sea Scrolls can currently be viewed in the Drents Museum until 5 January 2014. For more information on the project and to donate, go to www.rugsteunt.nl.
Source: University of Gronignen