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The Past Gets a New Toolbox

Libi Astaire

Today a dazzling array of high-tech gadgets and gizmos are giving archaeologists a key to unlock some of the past’s most impenetrable mysteries

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

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BREATH OF LIFE Innovative archeological tools have breathed new life into ancient cultures worldwide. In Israel, 45 years after archaeologists found a charred scroll in the ruins of an ancient shul in Ein Gedi, Professor Brent Seales innovated a digital program that “virtually unwrapped” the artifact. The results: pesukim from Sefer Vayikra that retained the integrity of the mesorah

A 1,700-year-old scroll too charred to open.
An ancient town sitting at the bottom of the sea.
Twenty years ago, their secrets would have remained just that — secrets. But today a dazzling array of high-tech gadgets and gizmos are giving archaeologists a key to unlock some of the past’s most impenetrable mysteries

Patience is perhaps one of the most important qualities that students of the ancient world must possess. Take the Ein Gedi scroll, for instance. The scroll was found inside the aron kodesh of Ein Gedi’s ancient synagogue during a 1970 archaeological excavation of the site. But the scroll, which was tightly rolled and so burnt that it resembled a lump of coal, was too fragile to touch, let alone try to unwrap and read. All the curators at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) could do was store the charred scroll in a safe place and wait until the day technology would make the artifact legible.

That day happened 45 years later, in 2015. When it was finally read, the 1,700-year-old scroll turned out to contain pesukim from Sefer Vayikra. Unlike other scrolls found in the Dead Sea area that contained slight differences to the Masoretic text, the text of the Ein Gedi scroll was exactly the same. The discovery, according to Dr. Pnina Shor, head of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Project, has filled in an important gap between the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written a few hundred years before the Ein Gedi document, and the 10th-century Aleppo Codex.

But how do you read a lump of coal?

Enter Professor W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. For more than two decades he had been working on a digital imaging software program that can “unfurl” and read a scroll too brittle to handle. After the IAA sent him a 3D scan of the burnt Ein Gedi parchment, he was able to create a virtual model of the unwrapped scroll that could accurately reconstruct the letters. He could do that because the scroll was written with dense ink that contained either iron or lead, which made the letters pop out. Ancient scrolls written with a carbon-based ink are more difficult to decipher, he says, because the ink is hard to distinguish from the carbonized surface of the burnt scroll.

Seales calls his method “virtual unwrapping.” But he’s not the only one seeking a high-tech solution for reading previously closed documents. Researchers at MIT and Georgia Tech are using terahertz radiation to read the letters printed on each page of a stack of paper, with the hope that one day the technology will be able to decipher antique books that are too fragile to open and study.

Terahertz radiation, a frequency of light on the electromagnetic spectrum between microwaves and infrared light, is able to distinguish between ink and blank paper because different chemicals absorb different amounts of the radiation. The system can distinguish between pages in a stack because there are miniscule air pockets between two pages. Multiple algorithms work in conjunction with the terahertz radiation waves to create a legible image of the print.

Right now the device constructed by the university researchers can only read the top nine pages of a stack of paper, but they hope that someday the technology will be able to read an entire book — even one with a leather cover that hasn’t been opened in hundreds of years.

Under Water

According to underwater archaeologist Jessi Halligan, archaeologists who explore once-terrestrial sites that are today submerged under water have a reputation for being the cowboys of science. But don’t expect to find her and other underwater archaeologists riding bucking broncos.

Lidar-equipped drones use lasers and sensors to build accurate 3D maps from overhead

Instead, they are increasingly using robotic submarines, such as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), to explore ancient towns sitting at the bottom of the sea.

One of the largest and best preserved underwater sites is Atlit-Yam, located off the coast of present-day Atlit, near Haifa, and ten meters beneath the current sea level. At the dawn of time, Atlit-Yam was a thriving village where the residents lived in stone houses with paved courtyards. They kept cattle and sheep, caught fish, stored grain and got fresh water from wells. Then for some reason it came to an end. Some scholars surmise that the village was rapidly submerged when a tsunami engulfed it and several other Mediterranean settlements. Others think the rise in sea level was more gradual.

While Atlit-Yam has been extensively explored since it was first discovered in 1984, it is just one site; researchers would like to explore many more to get a fuller picture. Marine archaeologists have had access to AUVs and ROVs for about a decade, which has enabled them to map and photograph the sea floor to a depth of about 6,000 meters (almost 20,000 feet). But according to Benedetto Allotta, head of industrial engineering at the University of Florence, using this technology can wreck many researchers’ budgets. That’s why he is part of an Italian research project called Archeosub, whose goal is to develop AUVs that are both technologically sophisticated and affordable. (excerpted)

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