SBL 2007 (p. 4)

At 5:10, the lights went out.

At several of the lectures I attended, the lights were turned off for the benefit of those not taking notes (like me) so that they could more fully enjoy the slideshows. Never in a million years would I have expected it to be the norm at academic conferences like this to not take notes, or to discourage the taking thereof. Back at the ASOR conference, I observed maybe 2 or 3 other people taking notes (not that I have trouble counting above 2, but I can’t say for sure if one person I saw taking notes in one room was not the same person taking notes in another room; sorry, I was taking notes on the speakers & VIPs, & not taking notes on the people taking notes).

Ironically, Bruce Zuckerman’s specialty is in taking photographs first & foremost to help scholars decipher hard-to-read handwriting; & there I was having a tough time scribbling on my notepad with the lights out! Here’s a clip so you can see what I’m talking about:

(It’s hard to believe my penmanship used to be so consistent & legible that I worked one summer as a pencil-&-paper draftsman!)

As at his University of Judaism lecture I attended 2 years ago, he began this one with another caveat, explaining that it would be a difficult lecture since all of his hands were busy working his computer & turning his notes, so he thought it would be better to just dump his notes, & talk off the top of his head so he could stick to controlling his computer’s mouse. But for the record, here’s the official title & abstract:

Getting the Big Picture: The Future for the Development, Dissemination, and Use of High Quality Digital Images of the Dead Sea Scrolls

With the publication of the DJD volumes now nearing completion, Dead Sea Scroll studies stand both at the end of one era and the beginning of another. At this point one can turn to any of the DJD volumes and get a pretty good look at just about any Dead Sea Scroll in print form. One can see further that at least a few plates in DJD have been put together and manipulated employing some manner of digital technology. There are also some further digital sources through which one can get fairly good digital images of Dead Sea Scrolls as well. The big question is this: what next? To what extent can digital technology aid scholars and researchers in getting—quite literally—a bigger, better picture of the Dead Sea Scrolls? What technologies are available today and what technologies can we look forward to in the future that will allow scholars to gain high resolution, primary image data of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In this illustrated presentation, we will survey the current state-of-the-digital-art in terms of what has been done, and what can and should be done as the Dead Sea Scrolls enter the technologically-driven 21st Century.

The first image he showed us was an ancient fragment of Genesis. I think this one was on leather because it was almost totally black so that you could just barely tell there were any letters on it. He was running Photoshop, & demonstrated how easy it was, with such an application, to switch between that regular-lighting image & another taken with an infrared camera. Now the letters stood out easily, & though you could probably see these photos elsewhere, it was really cool to see a world-class expert giving a live demo of it!

Next, he showed a fragment of Daniel from the famous Schoyen collection. This time the trick was to take several little pieces, each containing only a handful of letters, & drag them into various positions using his mouse until you could clearly see a match, & be able to read words that were previously illegible. Here the key selling point was that unlike researchers in older days of the 20th century who had to physically handle these delicate artifacts, now people can play with them like this all day long & not do any damage at all!

Then he showed a Dead Sea Scrolls specimen of “1Q Daniel B”. He noted that most of these photos don’t have a significant 3rd dimension; they’re usually flat enough to allow him to “cut” portions of letters from one photo, & reposition them adjacent to another photo, thereby restoring the word’s legibility. He described this operation as a “nip & tuck“, which the audience got a kick out of.

I found this section of his lecture the most interesting because the word he restored was MLKA–“king“!

He made several humorous comments like this throughout his talk, which is one of the reasons I enjoy hearing him so much. This was the 3rd-&-a-half lecture of his I’ve heard (including a lengthy intro he gave to P. Kyle McCarter 5 years ago at a California Museum of Ancient Art seminar; but not counting his Book & the Spade interviews).

Another example was when he was restoring a broken column of text to a papyrus fragment scholars previously labeled as “column 1”. Because this column preceded the other, & because there’s no such thing as zero, he decided to call it “column -1”. He told us in a mad-scientist tone that a skill like this “gives me a sense of power!

Yet again, he emphasized the benefit of this modern technology giving us a “non-invasive” method of restoring ancient texts. The next example had a tear through the middle of a word. Because of this, the edges curled upwards slightly, thereby separating the 2 halves of the letters. He cut the top half, & dragged it down for a perfect fit with the bottom half. His name for this process was a “patch“.

He especially enjoyed toggling back & forth between the way the fragments were originally, & the way he restored them so that you could see (& if you’re Hebrew literate, read) the words. At one point he did this numerous times as if he were alone in the room amusing himself, saying “This is fun…” Then realizing there was a rapt audience of about 100 people in front of him, he said, “…alright, I’ll stop.

He also showed a sample of his stroke-order coloring as published on the BASOR 334 CD-ROM for the Ketef-Hinnom silver scrolls. He freely admitted, “Is this correct? I don’t know.

The last text he worked on during this demo was the Targum of Job. He noted that it was currently on display over at the San Diego Museum of Natural History (you know, the place that didn’t want my money), & described it as “one of my favorite pieces“. This fragment posed a little bit of a mystery, because the ancient scribe erased a word. By speculating what the word might have been, & by using clues from the size of the erased space, & a few dots of ink missed during the erasure, & by copying the necessary letters from elsewhere on the fragment written by the same scribe, Dr. Zuckerman successfully (as far as I’m concerned) restored the missing word, & speculated on why it may have been erased.

No lecture by him would be complete without an ad for Inscriptifact website. Unlike other lectures where he simply gave out the URL & described what visitors could do, since the Marriott was broadcasting wireless Internet service, Prof. Zuckerman was able to give us a live demo, showing how to access some of the large photo files he had been working with during the lecture. Right now it contains about 20,000 images.

One surprising note at the end: Apparently most of the DSS images came from Jordan’s Department of Antiquities. Dr. Zuckerman somewhat lamented that Israel’s counterpart has not been as forthcoming in granting permission for use of photos of artifacts in their possession. He could only speculate as to why they act this way: “The Dead Sea Scrolls are the Marilyn Monroe of our field …” They have things in common… For one thing, “They’re both dead!” Also, “They unhinge people … people who would be normal around Meryl Streep” act different when you mention Marilyn.

During the 5-minute Q&A, someone noticed that he had been using Photoshop, & asked if he could recommend substitute software. He never gave any specific plugs, but said there were several available that could do what he did with Photoshop.

Another question was regarding forensic software used in identifying handwriting, & wondered if the same technique for identifying ballistics could be used to identify papyrus. Dr. Zuckerman mentioned that some of his photographs of vellum texts were of such high quality that he could match the “follicle patterns on skin” & measure the “thickness of inks“.

He also highlighted a problem with DSS research: “Scholars are not in charge.” He made an excellent point about it making more sense for scholars to be given charge of the scrolls, so that they can use technologies like he had demonstrated, & then significant progress would be made in restoring many of the broken fragments.

After a 20-minute response by Sidnie White Crawford to all the lectures in this session, the floor was opened to general questions. Marilyn Lundberg, another scholar who works with Dr. Zuckerman on the West Semitic Research Project, asked if anyone knew “How many people copied the scrolls?” Also, “Were the hides from related herds?” I don’t recall hearing anyone able to give clear-cut, definitive answers.

At one point, Jodi Magness mentioned that Qumran was established around “80 to 100 BCE“; this comment was an attempt to establish how many people copied them based on how long the site had been in use.

Dr. Zuckerman said one thing we know is that Qumran’s “scribal hands are professional hands,” but “one cannot paleographically date the scrolls” based on available evidence. Interesting!

In response to another question, Dr. Magness (again getting revved up) lamented that the 2nd volume of final reports from Qumran were “completely useless” because their publication had been “assigned to people who have no qualifications to work on it.” God bless her!

The last question was, “What would be some more constructive ways of engaging the general public?” Dr. Zuckerman said, “You have to engage the public carefully” because “as soon as anyone holds back evidence, everyone thinks there’s a conspiracy.” He used a funny figurative example of how a member of the general public reacts to controversial topics such as the DSS & Biblical archeology: “Hmm… Looney Tune says this, Normal Guy says that, Could it be…?

G.M. “Normal Guy” Grena

P.S. Note to self: “ANE-2” sounds remarkably similar to “Looney Tune”.

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