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Unravelling the secrets of the scrolls

14 September 2007

For centuries, the Dead Sea Scrolls remained unread, keeping their secrets about the earliest years of Christianity.

Even after their discovery in caves by the Dead Sea in 1947, many scrolls were too brittle to be read without destroying them.

Now research at the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences could provide the key to unlocking those secrets.

The Head of School, Professor Tim Wess, has been working with Diamond Light Source a new scientific facility in Oxfordshire and developed techniques to read the written words without unrolling the fragile documents.

The Diamond machine is the size of five football pitches and fires electrons at close to the speed of light to generate what is known as synchrotron light, in the form of X-rays, ultraviolet and infrared beams. The X-rays generated can be 100 billion times brighter than a standard laboratory X-ray tube.

Assisted by the Welsh e-Science Centre, Professor Wess and his team are now working on the full scale imaging and "virtual unravelling" of documents too fragile to unroll. They will also use the Diamond synchrotron to examine the nanoscopic structure of parchments such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are at risk of degrading to gelatine over the centuries. They hope to develop a simple test to determine the proportion of gelatine in a historical sample. The team is collaborating with groups in Israel and the national archives of England, Scotland, Denmark, and France. Tomography work has been carried out in conjunction with Graham Davis at Queen Mary, University of London.

Professor Wess revealed his findings in a paper delivered to this week’s Festival of Science 2007, organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He said: "In addition to identifying ways in which we might be able to prevent the loss of important records from both our past and future, our research aims to understand how we might recover documents damaged in natural disasters across the ages – such as the fire at the Library of Alexandria, or more recently flooding in the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland, which could leave such archives lost forever."