Detailed analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls has revealed a mysterious second author. While the subtle handwriting differences weren’t noticed with the naked eye, it was artificial intelligence that spotted them. Since the differences were so subtle, experts believe that the two scribes may have had similar training like attending the same school.
The scrolls were found in the late part of the 1940s in a cave in Qumran in the West Bank. Searches conducted over the following ten years revealed over 900 additional manuscripts in eleven different caves. Dating back to between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD, they are the oldest remaining texts from the Hebrew Bible.
It’s still unclear as to how many people wrote the manuscripts as they didn’t sign their names, but thanks to AI, we now know that at least two individuals wrote one of the manuscripts called the Great Isaiah Scroll that dates back to around 125 BC. This specific scroll measures 24 feet in length (7.3 meters) and 10 inches in height (25.4 centimeters).
The scroll has 54 columns of Hebrew text and it was between columns 27 and 28 that experts focused on as they noticed a tiny break in the text and two sheets that had been sewn together to make a new “page”. When AI noticed the handwriting differences, the researchers wanted to find out “whether subtle differences in writing should be regarded as normal variations in the handwriting of one scribe or as similar scripts of two different scribes.”
The team created an algorithm that could spot even the most minor differences in the ancient letters of the text. Lambert Schomaker, who is a professor of computer science and artificial intelligence at the University of Groningen as well as the senior researcher of the study, explained this in further detail, “This is important because the ancient ink traces relate directly to a person's muscle movement and are person-specific.”
They focused their attention on the fraglets which is part of the letters that “can be more precise, distinctive and informative in finding significant shape differences than the full characters.” “We also succeeded in demonstrating that the second scribe shows more variation within his writing than the first, although their writing is very similar,” Schomaker added. (Pictures of the writing can be seen here.)
In an email to Live Science, principal investigator Mladen Popović, who is a professor of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, noted that the difference in the handwriting suggests that whoever wrote the ancient scroll “worked in teams”.
The researchers now plan on analyzing other scrolls in hopes of finding out more about the authors. "Understanding the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls makes it possible to better understand what I call the cultural evolution of the Hebrew Bible," Popović stated.
The study was published in the journal PLOS One.