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Photographic Techniques Shed Light on Ancient Jewish Sources

Researchers in Israel and the United States are using modern technology to shed light on artifacts from the Biblical era. Digital photography is being used to illuminate inscriptions from Jewish history.

The Hebrew characters were scratched on two tiny silver scrolls, which were tightly wound and, scholars say, either worn as amulets or carried in small pouches.

Archeologist Gabriel Barkay of Israel's Bar-Ilan University discovered the scrolls in Jerusalem 25 years ago. Then, their ancient inscriptions were only partly visible. He turned for help to researchers at the University of Southern California, who had developed photographic techniques to study the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient artifacts.

Bruce Zuckerman directs USC's West Semitic Research Project, assisted

by his brother, photographer Ken Zuckerman.

"We love to photograph small objects with writing on them. So I said to my colleague and brother, Ken Zuckerman, hey, this is like Godzilla meets King Kong. Here's our chance to see if we can really use our best techniques against one of the most formidably difficult things to photograph," he said.

The silver scrolls, thought to date from the sixth century B.C., contain a version of a prayer called the Priestly Benediction, which Professor Zuckerman says is well known to Jews and Christians. The biblical version of the blessing, found in the book of Numbers, reads: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace."

"If you go to church or you go to synagogue, at the end of the service, the priest or the minister or the rabbi will intone the priestly benediction, the very famous prayer that begins 'May the Lord bless you and keep you.' And so that was the prayer that was found on them. So this was quite a remarkable thing, making these the oldest artifacts ever discovered that quote texts that we find in the bible," he said.

The team's photographic techniques revealed new sections of the inscriptions and provided additional context. Hebrew characters on one of the scrolls refer to God as the "rebuker of evil," a phrase with a long history both inside and outside the Bible. Team member Andrew Vaughn of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, says the inscriptions reveal a dynamic conception of God, whose name was written with consonants usually rendered as "Yahweh."

"These were used to describe Yahweh as a warrior deity who fought off evil. And most importantly, they were confessional statements," he said.

Mr. Vaughn says they are the earliest Jewish statements of faith found outside the Bible.

Bruce Zuckerman says the team faced a challenge in transferring the images onto computers. "It was necessary for us to use just about every technique that we had ever learned, and invent a few to get these things to yield their information," he said.

The techniques included "light painting," long used by photographers to highlight their subjects. During a time exposure in a darkened room, the object is "painted" with light, in this case, from an optic fiber.

Light was shined from various angles to highlight the inscriptions. The recorded images could then be superimposed on a computer screen to create a single picture. They can also be viewed from different angles individually.

The high-quality photographs serve two purposes. First, they help scholars extract more visual information than they could by viewing the object, says Marilyn Lundberg, associate director of the West Semitic project. "You create what's called a 'feedback loop,' especially if you are looking at the object itself. You look at the object, you look at a photograph, and each sort of reinforces the other," he said.

Professor Zuckerman says the digital project also makes the images widely available to scholars. "We began to realize that we were facing a problem when it came to publication, that our scholarly colleagues are going to need the data that we have in the form that we have it in order to understand what we're doing, to verify or dispute, or whatever they want to do. But they have to have high quality data," he said.

So for the first time in the field, high-resolution pictures accompany the article outlining the findings. The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, which printed the article, has also included a CD-ROM containing the images.

The researcher says he and his team have engaged in a kind of detective work using ancient evidence. He adds that scholars in other fields who work with old artifacts are excited about the new computer techniques. "I've had colleagues who are in Japanese manuscripts come to me and say, hey, what you're doing is very interesting. How do we apply this to our Japanese manuscripts?," he said.

Mr. Zuckerman adds that biblical archeologists are also starting to realize that much of their past analysis must now be done again, using computer imagery to shed new light on the ancient sources.