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Computers unravel the Bible

25 June 2015
Prof. Mladen Popović
Prof. Mladen Popović
Text by Neeltje Miedema, Research & Valorisation

The University of Groningen’s new Centre for Digital Humanities brings together researchers from the Humanities and Computer Sciences in new and innovative research. The Centre is unique in the Netherlands. In part 2: the academic value of Digital Humanities labs.

Professor Mladen Popović, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert at the University of Groningen, clearly remembers one of the best days of his academic career: the day he was given the privilege of analysing the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Popović is Professor of Old Testament and Early Judaism at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen, paying special attention to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Popović : ‘As a historian and palaeographer you have an important mission: to study and decipher ancient manuscripts and thus learn more about history. With texts as unique as the Dead Sea Scrolls in front of you, you know immediately that you’ve got a real gem in your hands. Such an assignment does cause some stress, however. If you’ve been given the unique opportunity to study such a wealth of information, as a researcher you want to extract the maximum information from the sources.’

The Dead Sea Scrolls—ancient Jewish manuscripts from the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE—contain the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and many ancient Jewish texts that were completely unknown before they were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves on the western shore of the Dead Sea . The scrolls provide a unique vantage point for studying the dynamic and creative engagement with authoritative scriptures that were to become the Bible. They shed new light on the political and religious context of more than 2000 years ago. They also offer evidence for a scribal culture ‘in action’. Palaeography can provide access to this scribal culture, showing the human hand behind what came to be regarded as holy texts .

Popović : ‘As a researcher I not only want to be able to read and understand the texts on the scrolls, but I also want to know who wrote them and under what circumstances. However, that particular information is not explicitly mentioned in the documents. You need to use other research methods to discover that. I decided to seek out fellow researchers at the University of Groningen who might be able to help me out. One such colleague is Professor of Artificial Intelligence Lambert Schomaker. His expertise lies in the use of advanced computer techniques in new and surprising analyses of existing images, in this case texts on leather and papyrus.’

Text analyzes: Mediaeval Palaeographic Scale
Text analyzes: Mediaeval Palaeographic Scale

The human eye

Lambert Schomaker: ‘Mladen’s invitation, sometime in 2009, to participate in his research was a challenge for us data scientists. The good thing was that we could help Mladen im-mediately. The Department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Groningen has developed its own set of search and annotation tools for handwritten manuscripts that are leading the way in this area of research, known as Monk. Monk specifically targets historical records, such as handwritten documents, for which traditional OCR (Optical Character recognition) techniques are not applicable. The system relies on efficient word-retrieval and recognition algorithms for text or writing style (the 'hand') that can be trained in real time using input from volunteers who label individual handwritten words. So we had an existing system that we could make a start with. But Mladen wanted more. Luckily for us.’

Popović : ‘With Digital Palaeography, which is the use of digital tools as an additional research method, pattern analysis makes it possible to analyze important individual characteristics of texts, handwriting style or written characters. These are characteristics that the human eye can’t see. This quantitative approach to handwriting analysis is providing a wealth of new data that may help us understand the cultural evolution of a certain period: who wrote what where and in what circumstances. In other words, this project will give unique access to the workings of an ancient textual community that was involved in the making of the Bible and help us to understand the evolution of biblical texts in a new way. It brings us closer to the questions that concern us all: who am I and where do I come from? Furthermore, the availability of big data means that as a researcher you can ask new questions about existing material. I have now appointed a research assistant who will focus specifically on this.’

Schomaker: ‘It’s inspiring to see that researchers from the Humanities are increasingly seeking collaboration with data scientists in the realization of fundamental research. We can help them, as long as their research questions are clearly formulated. We can, for instance, use computers to identify from writing style and fine motor skills. If the writers are from different age or population groups with different writing methods (e.g., Protestant or Catholic schools as a Dutch example), whether the texts were written by a man or woman, whether the writer was stressed at the time of writing, these categories will be found increasingly reliably by computers, if there is enough training data for machine learning.’

Prof. Lambert Schomaker
Prof. Lambert Schomaker

Synergy of two worlds

Popović and Schomaker are pleased about their joint research. This collaboration between the two different disciplines will be of significant academic value and will lead to new knowledge, new questions, more research, a database of big data but primarily new funding and more publications.

Popović : ‘Last year I was awarded a € 1.5 million ERC Starting Grant from Brussels for my research on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The whole review process made clear that the award was for a large part recognition for the use of new techniques such as artificial intelligence and carbon dating in combination with palaeography as an added value for the humanities.’

Schomaker: ‘If both fields make a fundamental contribution to the research, you end up with a unique situation in which one such research project or source results in two equal publications in two different disciplines – in this case the Humanities and Computer Sciences. This is also positive for the University of Groningen.’

Digital Humanities Labs

Popović : ‘The strength of the new Centre for Digital Humanities does indeed lie in bringing different disciplines from the Humanities together with the technical disciplines around them. Let’s call it Digital Humanities labs. I myself would like to make the crossover in handwriting analysis to chemical fingerprinting, for example. Pattern recognition in writing and paper that is based on chemical analyses.’

Schomaker: ‘Now Digital Humanities is becoming more prominent in fundamental research and collaboration, we should move towards computational Humanities or e-Humanities. This is where technical experts and Humanities researchers work togetherto develop new tools and methodologies for the collection, storage, processing, documentation and presentation of data. The disciplines now supplement each other with their own areas of expertise, leading to new types of research questions. With e-Humanities you really are taking a step towards a new future.’ See KNAW site:

Mladen Popović also works intensively with Hans van der Plicht at the University of Groningen’s radiocarbon laboratory. Radiocarbon dating is used to trace the chronology of archaeological artefacts and sites.

See also

Read part one of the series on Digital Humanities: interview with Prof. Marcel Broersma, director Centre for Digital Humanities RUG
Last modified:25 October 2019 2.28 p.m.

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