Reading Between the Lines

Greg Bearman, MA'75, PhD'76
Courtesy Greg Bearman
Greg Bearman, MA'75, PhD'76

Many looked as if they had been written yesterday. Others — over the course of nearly two millennia — had aged poorly, disintegrating into thousands of fragments, most of which were nearly illegible.

“Some of the fragments looked just like shoe leather,” Greg Bearman says of the parchment and papyrus pieces that make up the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest-known copies of Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah and other ancient religious writings, which were discovered in an Israeli cave in 1947.

For the past couple of decades, Bearman, MA’75, PhD’76, has worked with artifacts like the scrolls, developing new techniques to read faded texts. Using a narrow band of infrared light, he’s able to create high-contrast digital images that make formerly obscured text visible.

“Ink and parchment reflect different amounts of light,” says Bearman. “You’re essentially adding contrast to the image, so the text starts to pop out from the background.”

Reading ancient texts isn’t Bearman’s only mission. He’s also developing techniques that can track subtle changes in the artifacts over time, helping conservators monitor their physical state.

In 2008, Bearman, a former physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory turned digital imaging specialist, began helping the Israeli Antiquities Authority monitor the entire Dead Sea Scrolls collection — more than 20,000 fragments in all. Using an ultra-high-resolution digital camera, Bearman captured dozens of images of every fragment, each one using a different frequency of visible and infrared light. He then ran the images through a computer program to look for damage.

“You create an initial image of a scroll fragment, then do the same thing a few months or years later,” he says. “If you compare the two images using custom algorithms and software, you can tell which parts have changed or darkened over time, even if the change isn’t visible to the naked eye.”

Bearman notes the process could also be used to track changes in valuable artwork. Since it requires only a digital camera, a lighting system and a computer, it can be adapted for use in museums to monitor objects on display.

“We know very little about what’s happening to famous paintings like the Mona Lisa and other popular artwork,” he says, “since conservators rarely want to move them to the lab or let people take samples for study. But the sort of imaging we’re doing could provide useful information on those objects, just by taking a picture.”

— David Levin