Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Lost Scrolls: Interview with Professor Brent Seales

Can you explain what it is you do? Reading about you makes me think of Indiana Jones, except maybe without the chase scenes.

Yes, well, certainly these things can sound more glamorous than they really are! As a computer scientist and a computer vision imaging specialist, I am interested in both increasing access to and revealing things that are new. That confluence has been right in my wheelhouse.

What got you into this? How did you get involved in unlocking the secrets of ancient documents?

There was an evolution over time that pulled me toward antiquities and it started with digital libraries. Libraries are made up of all these amazing works that were not born digital. The push for conversion to digitization was the starting point for me. The work I did in the mid-to-late nineties with the British Library is the thing that really pulled me toward true manuscripts and things that are fairly badly damaged. That work involved the Beowulf manuscript, which is part of the Cotton Collection at the British Library. That was the period of time during which I really became fascinated with the archives in libraries and museums that most of us don’t get to see, not only because they contain things that are precious, but also because they are incredibly fragile and difficult to handle.

So there are manuscripts out there that we would like to read but can’t, and you have a technical expertise you can bring to these projects to make it possible. Tell us about that.

Yes, as an imaging and computer specialist I started trying to imagine how new ways to image things could help reveal parts of those things that we can’t see with the naked eye. But imaging alone is not the solution because there’s an algorithmic side, a computational side, that also has to be applied. Putting those two things together is really the set of instruments that I’ve been using.

Was there a methodology you had to figure out in order to get to what was inside these things? How did that happen?

We initially worked on damaged or faded open pages, using the technology to improve on what you see with the naked eye by making the contrast better. But that quickly evolved into an idea: We might be able to image something that is completely closed and reveal what is within. So I started to see what appear as lumps of coal as more like time capsules—pieces of evidence that had valuable information inside and we just needed to find a way to get inside without destroying them.

How long does it take you to find out what is inside?

The technical approach we use is a combination of an imaging method, which is the scanning part, as well as algorithms that we apply to make sense of what we scan. These are computer programs that we have written in-house as part of the research that we do. The scan, which takes about a day, captures everything inside, but using the algorithms to decipher what’s inside and virtually unwrap the layers can take months. The software takes us through each of the steps and allows us to solve those steps by doing transformations on the data.

Can you tell us about the projects you have worked on?

Yes, I’ve worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls material, the scroll from Ein Gedi, and also scrolls from Herculaneum. And some early medieval manuscripts, one of which is in the Morgan Library in New York City.

What is the most exciting discovery that you have made in your time doing this?

Our most exciting discovery was the revelation of the complete text from inside the scroll from Ein Gedi. The scroll was found in 1970 in an archaeological dig on the shore of the Dead Sea, in a town named Ein Gedi. It was discovered in the floor of what was found to be the holy ark of that synagogue. It was burned, it was small, and there was no physical restoration that would allow that team or the curating team later to have access to the text that might be inside. So the scroll sat for almost fifty years in an archive. The team in Israel created a scan of the scroll and then gave that data to us, which was the raw scan, and then we applied the research software that we had been working on to be able to do all the steps necessary to convert that raw scan into the writing that was inside. We discovered that there was a well-formed, readable text inside. It was parts of the first two chapters of the book of Leviticus, written in Hebrew, dated to about the second century. It was a Torah scroll, and it opened up the ability of biblical scholars to look at that text and determine when the text was first written, how it had changed over time, and whether it was the same text as what we have now, or if there were variations. We produced an image without opening the scroll that was good enough for biblical scholarship to actually be done. That’s never been done before. On anything. The Ein Gedi scroll is the earliest copy of Leviticus that we have that is an exact match to the settled Masoretic text that we have today. It’s our earliest record of that settled text.

So tell us about the Herculaneum project, which is the discovery of what they think is the villa of Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, in one of the cities covered by the ash of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

What’s really interesting about Herculaneum is that it is the only intact library from antiquity. It is also the largest number of scrolls excavated from a cache. The Dead Sea Scrolls produced about 900 manuscripts. It’s thought that Herculaneum produced maybe twice that many, maybe about 1,800, and there may be more yet to be excavated. When you poke back through the very narrow keyhole of the Middle Ages and you get back to antiquity, we know very, very little. A lot of our witness is only secondary witness now. But this is original material—authentic, original material. I mean it’s very exciting. It’s been a slow process, but we’re going to be excited to announce this spring a major effort that involves all of the Herculaneum material. I’m so eager to be able to move the material to something that looks like open scholarship so that scholars worldwide can easily answer the question, “What’s in the collection?”

Is there anything in particular that you are looking for in your work?

Well you know I’m a Christian and I’ve grown up as a faithful believer, and I recognize that Christianity is based in textual history. And if you look at the textual record, we don’t have much that’s earlier in terms of witness to the life of Jesus Christ before the second century. There just isn’t anything. That period of time was really exciting in the emergence of Christianity. The second temple period, the Council of Nicea—that 500-year slice of history is where Herculaneum sits. For me personally, I would love to be able to find texts that are meaningful for the world religions at their emergence, and in particular, early Christian texts. That would be very exciting. Evidence of things like the hypothesized Q manuscript would be a huge breakthrough in the community of Christian scholars. With early Jewish texts it’s the same thing. And there are a lot of unanswered questions even in the classical works.

What is it like to hold in your hand a manuscript that no one has held in millennia?

That realization was one of the most powerful feelings in the work we did in Ein Gedi, when my team and I realized that we were the first people to read this in 1,800 years. The research is about new technology, but it’s also about the adventure of discovery and satisfying that thirst to be able to have those moments where something new is truly discovered. It’s a direct message from one person’s hand to our brains. It’s the power of text.

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