AI Detecting the Scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Computer science and artificial intelligence have provided a new way to do science: it was in fact one of the earliest uses of the computer. They are now giving new ways for scholars to do research in other disciplines such as ancient history, too. Artificial Intelligence has been used in a novel way to help understand how the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, and it turns out scribes in ancient Judea worked in teams.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of almost a thousand ancient documents written several thousand years ago that were found in caves near the Dead Sea. The collection includes the oldest known written version of the Bible.

The cave where most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Researchers from the University of Groningen used artificial intelligence techniques to analyse a digitised version of the longest scroll in the collection, known as the Great Isaiah Scroll. They picked one letter, aleph, that appears thousands of times through the document, and analysed it in detail.

Two kinds of artificial intelligence programs were used. The first, feature extraction, based on computer vision and image processing was needed to recognize features in the images. At one level this is the actual characters, but also more subtly here, the aim was that the features corresponded to ink traces based on the actual muscle movements of the scribes.

The second was machine learning. Machine Learning programs are good at spotting patterns in data – grouping the data into things that are similar and things that are different. A typical text book example would be giving the program images of cats and of dogs. It would spot the patterns of features that correspond to dogs, and the different pattern of features that corresponds to cats and group each image into one or the other pattern.

Here the data was all those alephs or more specifically the features extracted from them. Essentially the aim was to find patterns that were based on the muscle movements of the original scribe of each letter. To the human eye the writing throughout the document looks very, very uniform, suggesting a single scribe wrote the whole document. If that was the case, only one pattern would be found that all letters were part of with no clear way to split them. Despite this, the artificial intelligence evidence suggests there were actually two scribes involved. There were two patterns.

The research team found, by analysing the way the letters were written, that there were two clear groupings of letters. One group were written in one way and the other in a slightly different way. There were very subtle differences in the way strokes were written, such as in their thickness and the positions of the connections between strokes. This could just be down to variations in the way a single writer wrote letters at different times. However, the differences were not random, but very clearly split at a point halfway through the scroll. This suggests there were two writers who each worked on the different parts. Because the characters were otherwise so uniform, those two scribes must have been making an effort to carefully mirror each other’s writing style so the letters looked the same to the naked eye.

The research team have not only found out something interesting about the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also demonstrated a new way to study ancient hand writing. With a few exceptions, the scribes who wrote the ancient documents, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, that have survived to the modern day, are generally anonymous, but thanks to leading-edge Computer Science, we have a new way to find out more about them.

Explore the digitised version of the Dead Sea Scrolls yourself at www.deadseascrolls.org.il

– Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London