The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s in caves in the Judaean Desert and are considered one of the greatest finds of the last centuryPhoto: EPA
The technology giant and Israel announced that they are teaming up to give researchers and the public the first comprehensive and searchable database of the scrolls – a 2,000-year-old collection of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek documents that shed light on Judaism during biblical times and the origins of Christianity. For years, experts have complained that access to the scrolls has been too limited.
Once the images are up, anyone will be able to peruse exact copies of the original scrolls as well as an English translation of the text on their computer – for free. Officials said the collection, expected to be available within months, will feature sections that have been made more legible thanks to hi-tech infrared technology.
"We are putting together the past and the future in order to enable all of us to share it," said Pnina Shor, an official with Israel's Antiquities Authority.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s in caves in the Judaean Desert and are considered one of the greatest finds of the last century.
After the initial discovery, tens of thousands of fragments were found in 11 caves nearby. Some 30,000 of these have been photographed by the antiquities authority, along with the earlier finds. Together, they make up more than 900 manuscripts.
For decades, access to 500 scrolls was limited to a small group of scholar-editors with exclusive authorisation from Israel to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of fragments, and to translate and publish them. That changed in the early 1990s when much of the previously unpublished text was brought out in book form.
But even now, access for researchers is largely restricted at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the originals are preserved in a dark, temperature-controlled room.
Miss Shor said scholars must receive permission to view the scrolls from the authority, which receives about one request a month. Most are given access, but because no more than two people are allowed into the viewing room at once, scheduling conflicts arise. Researchers are permitted three hours with only the section they have requested to view placed behind glass.
Putting the scroll online will give scholars unlimited time with the pieces of parchment and may lead to new hypotheses, Shor said.
"This is the ultimate puzzle that people can now rearrange and come up with new interpretations," she said.
Scholars already can access the text of the scrolls in 39 volumes along with photographs of the originals, but critics say the books are expensive and cumbersome. Miss Shor said the new pictures – photographed using cutting-edge technology – are clearer than the originals.
The refined images were shot with a hi-tech infrared camera NASA uses for space imaging. It helped uncover sections of the scrolls that have faded over the centuries and became indecipherable.
If the images uploaded prove to be of better quality than the original, scholars may rely on these instead of travelling to Jerusalem to see the scrolls themselves, said Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish thought at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
"The more accessible the fragments are the better. Any new line, any new letter, any better reading is a great happiness for scholars in this field," she said.
The new partnership is part of a drive by Google to have historical artefacts catalogued online, along with any other information.
"There are artefacts in boxes, in museum basements. We ask ourselves how much this stuff is available on the internet. The answer is not a lot, and not enough," said Yossi Matias, an official from Google-Israel.