‘Super-scope’ to see hidden texts?

In an article that was produced by the BBC:

** ‘Super-scope’ to see hidden texts **

“A light source 10 billion times brighter than the Sun could soon be helping scientists to read ancient manuscripts.”

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It seems that journalists are having a field day. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls are actually not the best candidate for this technology.

This is only a hypothetical use of an instrument, the synchrotron, that is normally used for other purposes. The synchrotron has generally been used to identify atomic components (neutrons, neutrinos etc.) and to distinguish and quantify different elements (C14, C12 etc.).

The more likely use of this technology would be on medieval manuscripts originally written on with iron-based, oak gall ink, but which have now lost their ink. This type of ink could leave invisible traces of iron on parchment surfaces. To reconstruct readings on this type of manuscript, other less expensive and less destructive instruments could also be used. Unlike the medieval manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with carbon-based inks. Traces of carbon-based inks are not easily distinguished from the surrounding parchment, by this type of instrumentation, since both the ink and the surface (originally animal skin) are carbon-based. In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the normal visible and invisible light spectra (including especially the infra-red range), are much better for distinguishing the carbon ink from the parchment.

“10 billions times brighter than the sun” is not proper terminology for what the instrument actually produces. Brightness is measured in lumens. The present holders of the Dead Sea Scrolls would not allow the scrolls to be exposed to normal sunlight, let alone an even brighter light source. In most cases brightness adds no advantage to imaging the scrolls. The only potential fragments that may be addressed here are ones that have deteriorated to the extent that the layers cannot be separated (called “wads”). Very few wads exist in the collection. Certainly, the the State of Israel would only permit this technology to be tried on fragments that they would not mind being returned “burnt”. Not impossible, but certainly an unlikely scenario.

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