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Technology in the service of archaeology

The thought of the researchers of the past - historians or archaeologists - brings up an image of several people sitting in a small, dark room, slowly examining a tedious document with a magnifying glass and trying to decipher word by word, letter by letter. It turns out that the reality is very far from this image.

Technology in the archeology service, DNA testing for the skeleton. Illustration:
Technology in the archeology service, DNA testing for the skeleton. Illustration:

A new generation of scientists in Israel is developing technologies for historical research: from a Google-like search in an archive of ancient documents to DNA tests of the buried scrolls.
Their success makes it possible to both preserve findings and make them accessible to the general public
It is likely that the thought of researchers of the past - historians or archaeologists - brings up an image of several people sitting in a small, dark room, slowly examining a tedious document with a magnifying glass and trying to decipher word by word, letter by letter. It turns out that the reality is very far from this image.

Historians and archaeologists may study the distant past, but they do so with the aid of the latest technological means. Starting with a Google-like search of hundreds of years old documents, which until recently were almost unreadable, through advanced devices that make it possible to identify the aroma of the temple and ending with a DNA test for the buried scrolls - the study of the past has become a high-tech field in recent years.

In Israel this trend is particularly noticeable. The innumerable archaeological sites and finds scattered throughout it on the one hand, and the developed local high-tech industry on the other hand, have created a new breed of scientists: archaeologists and historians who adapt technological developments from other fields such as biology and chemistry to their use, and experts in computer science who develop tools to improve research and understanding of the past.

One of the central institutions in the field is the digitization plant of the National Library in Jerusalem. In the last decade, the plant scanned hundreds of thousands of documents and uploaded their digital files to the network for free viewing on the plant's website.

In the online database you can find documents from the 15th century onwards, including a collection of Jewish inscriptions, a selection of ancient maps, rare and ancient copies of manuscripts of the Mishnah and the Talmud, and tens of thousands of rare books and Jewish and Israeli newspapers from the 19th century onwards. According to Orly Simon, director of the computing and digitization department at the National Library, the importance of the database for researching and preserving the past is twofold. "Transferring the documents to a digital format makes it possible to preserve the information that appears in them. Many times these are documents whose condition is deteriorating, and digitization makes it possible to preserve them. In addition, the fact that the documents are available to everyone on the web helps researchers from all over the world. They can receive all the documents immediately, without wasting time on traveling and searching."

But the work done so far is only the beginning of the process. In the coming years, the conservation enterprise will invest tens of millions of dollars in the digitization process of millions of documents, which can be called the Google Books of historical writings. "We have agreed on hundreds of collaborations with major libraries and academic institutions in the world, including the University of Cambridge, the Library of Congress and the British National Library," says Simone. "There will be millions of pages of Hebrew and Jewish press, instead of about 500 thousand today, tens of thousands of books and rare books and tens of thousands of photographs."

One of the main moves of the enterprise is the digitization of writings found in private collections. "These are documents that were not available to the public, and following their transfer to a digital format, many researchers will be able to examine them for the first time," Simon explains.

The work of Itai Bar-Yosef from Ben-Gurion University begins at the point where Simon's work ends. Bar-Yosef, who recently completed doctoral studies in computer science, participated in the development of an algorithm that deciphers ancient documents and converts them into a format that allows searching for words in them, just like on Google.

"There are many scanned documents, but they contain," explains Bar-Yosef. "The scanned documents are saved as images, and the computer cannot read the information written in them. On top of that, a large part of the documents were found to be of very poor quality, because they were not well preserved over the years."

In the first step, the algorithm separates the text itself from the background on which it appears. "The initial problem is how to overcome difficulties such as stains, ink that penetrated from the other side of the document, etc. There are also cases where some of the information is missing," says Bar-Yosef. "The second step is analysis at a higher level - separation between lines and between words. The information obtained makes it possible to identify and analyze writing styles." By analyzing the writing style it is possible to know when and where the document was written, and with a little luck, also who wrote it.

Recently, the project, headed by Prof. Clara Kedem, Prof. Yitzhak Dinstein, Dr. Jihad Al-Sana and Prof. Uri Ehrlich, received a research grant for three years to create a system that will allow the algorithm to be run on the scanned documents or connect to document databases and use in the system to search for documents.

"The system will remind Google to some extent. It will be possible to enter a search word and receive results of the occurrences of the word in a certain document or database," says Bar-Yosef. "Until today, the researchers did manual work, sitting in front of microfilm and looking for document after document. This is a procedure that can take months or even years. Our development does the job automatically and quickly. Instead of dealing with deciphering and linking documents, researchers can deal with understanding what is written." But the information found in certificates and ancient documents is not limited to what is written in them. Advanced instruments that allow us to test their chemical elements help researchers to draw a more complete historical picture.

One of the researchers who use this instrument is Prof. Yuval Goren from the Department of Archeology at Tel Aviv University. But while most researchers rely on large and expensive laboratory equipment, Goren managed to create devices that can fit into a suitcase, which he takes with him on his travels around the world - a kind of flying laboratory.

"Theoretically, it is possible to take samples of an archaeological find, bring them to the laboratory and perform the various tests with large devices," he explains. "But since these are delicate and sensitive findings, it is not always possible and non-destructive testing methods should be adapted. In some countries, extracting samples of findings involves long procedures and is usually not possible. Therefore, over the years I have been able to minimize all the instrumentation. If it is not possible to bring the findings to the laboratory, the laboratory is brought to the findings."

One of the innovative devices found in Goren's flying laboratory is X-ray fluorescence (XRF). "The device irradiates the ancient certificates or stamps (clay seals used to sign letters - OT) with X-rays. It creates reactions at the atomic level that result in the release of energy, which is picked up by a special reader that translates it into quantitative data. This makes it possible to know which chemical elements are present in the material, and in what quantity. By comparing the composition of the elements with the data in databases, it is possible to identify the source of the find."
Tests of this type allow researchers to draw a geographical map of the ancient world. "If the name of the city from which it was sent is written on a letter sent, you can place the city on a map. In the City of David, for example, a large amount of stamps were discovered that sealed papyri from the First Temple period. We used these methods to test the material from which the stamps are made, and through a systematic test we mapped the government in Judah at the end of the First Temple."

The research sparked halachic discussions

One of the interesting studies done in the field is the DNA tests that were carried out on the scrolls buried in the Dead Sea, to find out from the skins of which animals the cards for the scrolls were made. "The test was done in an attempt to find a connection between parts of different scrolls. If it can be shown that certain pieces of parchment belong to the same animal, pieces of scrolls can be connected. The research also led to halachic discussions on the question of which animals are allowed to be eaten," says Goren.

Prof. Steve Weiner from the Weizmann Institute is one of the leading researchers in Israel combining advanced scientific instruments in archaeological research. Weiner heads the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Sciences, which deals, among other things, with promoting the use of methods from the fields of natural science in the study of the ancient world.

The center recently purchased a new piece of equipment called MS-Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GS). "The device detects small organic molecules - fats of various kinds - that have been absorbed by ceramic vessels, and makes it possible to discover their content," says Weiner. "The analysis provides information on trade carried out in the area, customs, eating habits and more. One of the interesting discoveries we came across was in an excavation at Tel Yavneh. A pit full of vessels was discovered there that looked like bowls with a base and were not for daily use. An analysis of some of them found molecules originating from volatile plant material, and it is possible that they were used to produce a special smell for the temple."

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