Google to post ancient Dead Sea Scrolls online

First century material meets 21st century technology, opening historical documents to massive online audience

The first century is meeting 21st century technology.

Google is working with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls and make them available online. The collection of documents consists of about 30,000 fragments of the scrolls, which are approximately 2,000 years old.

Google's job is to take the fragile Dead Sea Scroll documents , some of which were made of dried animal skins and stretch as much as 30 feet, and make them accessible to anyone in the world with online access.

This is the first time that the collection has been photographed in its entirety since the 1950's, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, an Israeli governmental authority tasked with regulating excavation and promoting research.

"We are establishing a milestone connection between progress and the past to preserve this unique heritage for future generations," said Shuka Dorfman, general director of the IAA. "At the end of a comprehensive and profound examination, we have succeeded in recruiting the best minds and technological means to preserve this unrivaled cultural heritage treasure which belongs to all of us, so that the public with a click of the mouse will be able to freely access history in its fullest glamour."

Google declined comment on the announcement.

Many experts consider the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls to be the most significant archaeological find of the 20th century. Discovered in a series of caves near the Dead Sea in the 1940s and 1950s, the documents are important to many in both religious and historical terms.

The scrolls, which include the earliest known copies of the Hebrew Bible, were written between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D. Religious scholars say they provide significant takes on the history of Judaism and early Christianity.

"Actually this is information few have ever seen and a piece of our oldest written history," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "What makes this epic is that it could be important for generations of religious scholars. This is a project that could have an impact on thousands of years in the future. There are few projects that have that kind of life expectancy."

To digitize the scrolls, the IAA will use imaging technology developed by MegaVision, a U.S. based company. The imaging technology uses various wavelengths and infrared light to not only image but help preserve the fragile scrolls. The imaging technology is expected to be installed in the IAA labs early in 2011.

The Google R&D center in Israel is working on the project, according to the IAA. Google will upload images of the digitized scrolls and then set them up with meta-data, including transcriptions, translations and bibliography, to make them easily searchable in a number of different languages.

"It's the most reasonable solution to a difficult situation -- you have something that is incredibly fragile and irreplaceable and yet is also an object that needs to be studied by a wide range of scientists and historians," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group.

"Our technology today has risen to a level where objects like the Dead Sea Scrolls can be reproduced with amazing fidelity and then circulated in digital form to those with just a casual interest or others who are devoting their life to discovering the secrets contained in the scrolls. This is one of the better outcomes from the Internet and our wired society," he added.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin , or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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