Signs Signs, Everywhere a Sign: A Digital Palaeographical Method to Read Scroll Fragments (Part I)

”And the sign said ‘Long-haired freaky people need not apply’” marks the beginning to a verse we’ve all heard and likely have sung ​(Emmerson 1971)​.1 And as the song continues we resonate with its ideas that we exist in a sea of signs—from which we all make different meanings, fashion values, and have different experiences. Cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and cognitive linguists have studied how the mind creates categories vis-à-vis our experiences in the world, and how our experiences influence how we create meaning and apply our values in reasoning. 2 The outdated theory of the mind as a tabula rasa is giving way to more sophisticated insights and understandings of cognitive development ​(Dehaene 2009)​. These advances are coming from many directions, but one direction that I find fascinating is how the human mind can learn to read ​(Lackoff 2013)​. As the song continues, it asks, ”Can you read the sign?” This question is not too far from what this post asks: How can we read signs? Unlike the song, however, I am not interested in how we interpret a sign such as, “Long-haired freaky people need not apply,” but a sign such as a letter or character (e.g., “a”, “b”, “א“, “ב“, “ܓ”, “ܠ”, or “س”)? As research progresses into how the human mind can read signs, we are in a position to focus these insights so as to advanced our scholarly practices of editing the Judean Desert Scrolls.3 But even still, we can further refine our editorial practices—and palaeographical analysis in particular—by re-envisioning how to edit a fragmentary scroll in a digital environment.4

Thus, I would like to focus on how cognitive science, digital scholarly editing, and digital palaeography can clarify and advance our editorial practices of ancient artefacts. In the following series of posts, I will expand on these ideas so to explain how digital palaeography can fit within a larger model of scroll reconstruction. By model, I am appealing to the hermeneutical process involved in scroll reconstruction ​(Tucker and Porzig 2018)​. As the digital Humanist Willard McCarty has observed, “By nature modelling defines a ternary relationship in which it mediates epistemologically, between modeller and modelled, between researcher and data or between theory and world” ​(McCarty 2005)​. To achieve such a description of how cognitive science and palaeography can be modelled within a digital palaeographical approach, it implies a level of skill in each of the academic fields of Qumran/Dead Sea Scrolls, Cognitive Linguistics, and Digital Humanities—a rare skill set to have in these days of age.

While these posts are focused on the Judean Desert Scrolls, the methodological insights can equally be applied to any manuscript collection. In this post, I would like provide a summary of the next three posts of this series.

  • Part II – The Role of Palaeography in Modelling Judean Desert Scrolls: An Introduction to Material Reconstruction in a 2D working Environment
  • Part III – Regions of Interest Quantified – Solving Problems of the Analogue Methods of the Discoveries in the Judean Desert Series
  • Part IV – Schriftenmetric – Digital Palaeography and Scroll Reconstruction
  • Part V – Discursus Digital Palaeography and Palaeographical Dating – Some Problems with Typographical Dating
  • Part VI – Conclusions


  1. Dehaene, Stanislas. 2009. Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. Penguin.
  2. Emmerson, Les. 1971. “Signs by the Five Man Electrical Band.” Youtube. 1971.
  3. Lackoff, George. 2013. “Embodied Cognition and Language.” Central European University (Youtube). October 2013.
  4. Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. McCarty, Willard. 2005. Humanities Computing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Mroczek, Eva. 2011. “Thinking Digitally About the Dead Sea Scrolls: Book History Before and Beyond the Book.” Book History 14 (1): 241–69.
  7. ———. 2016. The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Najman, Hindy. 2003. Seconding Sinai: The Development of Mosaic Discourse in Second Temple Judaism. Supplements for the Study of Judaism. Leiden: Brill.
  9. Najman, Hindy, Eric F. Mason, Samuel I. Thomas, Alison Schofield, and Eugene Ulrich. 2012. “Configuring the Text in Biblical Studies.” In A Teacher for All Generations: Essays in Honor of James C. VanderKam, 1:3–22. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Leiden: Brill.
  10. Tucker, James M., and Peter Porzig. 2018. “Between Artefacts, Fragments, and Texts: An Analysis of 4Q266 Column I.” Dead Sea Discoveries 25 (3): 335–58.
  1. These series of posts are edited versions of notes I have taken over the years. Edited versions of these posts will be published in a forthcoming article.
  2. The literature and reseasrch these developments is enormous. A good place to start, from a humanities perspective, would be with ​(Lakoff 1987)​
  3. Often times called, the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” I prefer to call them the Judean Desert Scrolls, as a shorthand for the artefacts discovered in the Judean Desert. The site of Qumran (caves 1–11) in the northwest regions of the Dead Sea is a location where some of the scrolls were discovered, but other scrolls were discovered in different locations in the Judean Desert.
  4. By re-envisioning I mean we need to devise and explain methodological developments within a new framework of understanding, not pushing old notions of print media onto digital humanities. For example, some might adduce the notions of eclectic and/or diplomatic as a way to describe digital editions. But such an explanation is a reflection of the media of printing cultures, made ubiquitous by the technological developments of the printing press. These points have already been well argued by ​(Najman 2003)​ ​(Najman et al. 2012)​ ​(Mroczek 2011)​ and ​(Mroczek 2016)​

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