The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered some seventy years ago, are famous for containing the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and many hitherto unknown ancient Jewish texts. But the individual people behind the scrolls have eluded scientists, because the scribes are anonymous. Now, by combining the sciences and the humanities, University of Groningen researchers have cracked the code, which enables them to discover the scribes behind the scrolls. They presented their results in the journal PLOS ONE on 21 April.Congratulations to the Groningen team for this important project. The press release gives a clear, relatively nontechnical summary of the underlying Plos One article. The article:
Artificial intelligence based writer identification generates new evidence for the unknown scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls exemplified by the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa)The story has received a lot of media attention.
Mladen Popović , Maruf A. Dhali , Lambert Schomaker
Published: April 21, 2021https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249769
The Dead Sea Scrolls are tangible evidence of the Bible’s ancient scribal culture. This study takes an innovative approach to palaeography—the study of ancient handwriting—as a new entry point to access this scribal culture. One of the problems of palaeography is to determine writer identity or difference when the writing style is near uniform. This is exemplified by the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa). To this end, we use pattern recognition and artificial intelligence techniques to innovate the palaeography of the scrolls and to pioneer the microlevel of individual scribes to open access to the Bible’s ancient scribal culture. We report new evidence for a breaking point in the series of columns in this scroll. Without prior assumption of writer identity, based on point clouds of the reduced-dimensionality feature-space, we found that columns from the first and second halves of the manuscript ended up in two distinct zones of such scatter plots, notably for a range of digital palaeography tools, each addressing very different featural aspects of the script samples. In a secondary, independent, analysis, now assuming writer difference and using yet another independent feature method and several different types of statistical testing, a switching point was found in the column series. A clear phase transition is apparent in columns 27–29. We also demonstrated a difference in distance variances such that the variance is higher in the second part of the manuscript. Given the statistically significant differences between the two halves, a tertiary, post-hoc analysis was performed using visual inspection of character heatmaps and of the most discriminative Fraglet sets in the script. Demonstrating that two main scribes, each showing different writing patterns, were responsible for the Great Isaiah Scroll, this study sheds new light on the Bible’s ancient scribal culture by providing new, tangible evidence that ancient biblical texts were not copied by a single scribe only but that multiple scribes, while carefully mirroring another scribe’s writing style, could closely collaborate on one particular manuscript.
It looks to me as though the algorithms have crossed a threshold. They now can perceive finer distinctions than the human brain can. They have to dumb down their results for us to understand. Hopefully we can trust them.
For past posts on algorithms applied to cuneiform studies, archaeology, paleography, and epigraphy, see here and follow the links. Cross-file unde Algorithm Watch and The Singularity is Near.
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