Meeting the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls

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 Popovic, 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 Popovic, "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."

Artificial Intelligence

To find answers to his questions, Popovic 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 Popovic.


Popovic 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."

Popovic 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 Popovic.

See for yourself

The Dead Sea Scrolls can be viewed in the Drents Museum until 5 January 2014.

Source: University of Gronignen

Alexandra Gowling


Alexandra Gowling

Alexandra is an Australian citizen and an experienced expat, having spent (quite a bit of) time in Asia before coming to the Netherlands a year ago. She enjoys writing, reading...

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