Arts and Sciences are coming together in the search for the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. With the help of artificial intelligence, it is now possible to differentiate between the individuals who wrote and copied these manuscripts 2000 years ago. Discovering the individual authors who wrote the manuscripts is ‘literally shaking their hands’, says Mladen Popović, director of the world-famous Qumran Institute of the University of Groningen. He is seeking the support of the general public through a crowdfunding project.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the most important archaeological findings ever. They were discovered in the middle of the twentieth century in caves near Qumran, and comprise over a thousand manuscripts from the period before and at the beginning of our era. They provide a unique insight into the creation of what later became the Bible. ‘We know the content of the rolls,’ says Mladen Popović, ‘but we also want to know about the world behind the manuscripts. Who wrote the text or texts? And what was the writing culture like? Answers to these questions will bring us closer to the origins of our own culture.’ Popović is director of the Qumran Institute in Groningen, renowned for its decades of research on the manuscripts.
To find answers to his questions, he is working with Lambert Schomaker, the scientific director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute of the University of Groningen. They have developed a system to access historical and handwritten archives, called MONK. All the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been entered into MONK, which must now learn to recognize the different letters, words and handwriting. Popović: ‘MONK sees more than you can with the naked eye. The system can also take into account muscle strength, pen control and the materials used. This means we can trace the unique characteristics of each individual writer.’
Popović and Schomaker want to involve a much wider audience in their research. ‘There is a lot of interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and their history. Using crowdfunding, we hope not only to get this project off the ground faster with the money we raise, but also that people will feel that they are participating in a concrete way.’ Popović hopes to raise € 20,000 through the site www.rugsteunt.nl. ‘Every donation helps – even a small amount will help us to continue to analyze as many documents as possible and to set up a solid database of letter and word styles.’
Living room lecture
Depending on the size of the donation, donors also receive something in return, for instance an image of a letter from the Dead Sea Scrolls analysed by MONK, an afternoon analyzing texts themselves, or a living room lecture by Mladen Popović.
Mladen Popović’s crowdfunding project is an initiative of the Ubbo Emmius Fund of the University of Groningen. As the first university in the Netherlands, the University of Groningen has created its own crowdfunding platform: www.rugsteunt.nl. Through this platform, in spring 2013 Arctic ecologist Martin Loonen raised over € 23,000 for his research on the Arctic tern.
The Dead Sea Scrolls can currently be viewed in the Drents Museum. The exhibition, curated by Mladen Popović, runs until 5 January 2014.
Contact: Prof. Mladen Popović
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