Schriftenmetric – A Digital Humanities Approach to Scroll Reconstruction (Part IV.1)

In the last post of this series, I began to change gears by introducing a digital humanities approach to philological study of the fragmentary artefacts. I mentioned that we need to transition to some digital humanities tools to advance our study of 1QSa II 11–12. We will get to these tools in the next post. In this post, I want to step back from the specific problem we face in reading 1QSa II 11–12 into a some general abstractions of artefactual reconstruction.

By artefact, I mean a material object engineered by humankind to serve some sort of purpose. When applying the term artefact to scribalism, we are dealing with ancient scrolls produced by Second Temple era scribes. However, we do not often have the scrolls as they were produced in antiquity. The scrolls have decayed over the many years setting in the caves of the Judaean Desert. We must, therefore, engineer a method to reconstruct—i.e., reverse engineer—the scrolls from the available evidence we have. Let me describe the process of reconstruction through the analogy of criminal science.

Let’s say someone discovered a body in the stair well of a car garage. It would be haste and irrational to conclude the person was murdered. Why? The reason why is because we can think of several circumstances that could have resulted in the person’s death. We need evidence to help us reverse engineer the events that led to the person’s death. Perhaps it was because of a heart attack, stroke, or someone other medical condition. Perhaps the person fell and suffered injury. Let’s say an examination of the scene reveals blood spatter. We then call a blood splatter analyst to work through various circumstances, and the analyst considers various scenarios apropos the most plausible explanation of the blood. A most plausible explanation of the blood is derived from various observations and gravity, speed, direction of spatter, etc., whereas a lab specialist might test the DNA to determine whether the blood was from the deceased person, another person, is it linked to the event of the person’s death. If it was linked, does the spatter pattern speak to violent actions, etc., or some other phenomenon. While this analogy is gruesome, the point here is that we gather circumstantial evidence, looking for the best explanation of the given evidence. If we were to happen upon a security camera that recorded the event of death, then we could have direct evidence of the time of death. The information encoded in this video however also has a set of interpretive hurdles. This video, furthermore, would then influence how we interpret and make sense of other information pertaining to the event. You get the point – we must gather evidence and attempt—weigh and consider relationships among nodes of information that we say are related—to reconstruct the event. We reason towards the best explanation at hand. This process of weighing and prioritising evidence is tricky for we are not dealing with data–there are no data. We are dealing with information, as we attempt to understand and make sense of the event.

In terms of reconstructing ancient artefacts, we have a group of fragments. These fragments tell a story, and a good researcher will realise that a method is required to tell that story. What is our evidence? Of course the fragments are evidence, but each and every fragment contains additional bits on information. The damage patterns (i.e., shapes) of the fragment, the ink inscribed on the surface, the features of the parchment or papyrus, the wrinkles of the material, the scribal marks, the holes created by insects, sewing seems, and whatever else one can discover. In other words, the process to reverse engineer scrolls begins with interpretation, gathering evidence, and reasoning towards the best explanation of the given evidence. To begin the process with theoretical ideas about a scroll and its various convolutions misses the point that we are dealing with the need to address the circumstances of fragmentary remains.

Thus, we should not jump to the conclusion that the fragments attest to an ancient scroll, an artefact. Rather, we need to get to work and take stock of all the evidence. The reason being is that fragments might not attest to a scroll – they might rather attest to only a sheet of parchment or papyrus. To test such questions, we need to create 3D models and roll up a scroll. But before we can work with a 3D digital reconstruction, we need a method to work with a 2D reconstruction. We need to know where a fragment might fit within a column, how columns were prepared by the scribes, were there any sewing seems, etc. How do we go about this process? And how might the computer and its computational abilities help us? And how might we use Neural Networks to make some of these decisions for us? Not definitive decisions, but suggestions. Since the computer is much better at factoring into its analysis all of the bits of information we feed it, how can we devise a editorial method that is not only quicker but also more advanced and thorough than we’ve been able to achieve in previous editions?

In this post, I want to turn our attention to the scribal hand. Palaeography has been a focus in Dead Sea Scrolls research since the very first discovery. When John Trever first saw the The Great Isaiah Scroll and the Community Rule, he immediately set out to photograph the scrolls.1 The reason he wanted to photograph the scrolls were was to send images to William Albright. Trever wanted Albright to examine the scripts so as to authenticate the date of the scrolls. Albright had exerted some effort in the palaeographical study of the Nash Papyrus, a study of which Trever was aware. Thus, Trever wanted Albright’s opinion about the authenticity and date of the newly discovered scrolls.

Following Albright, Frank Moore Cross published a typological analysis of the newly discovered scrolls.2 It took Cross only a handful of years to come to his conclusions. Cross worked from the older method of typographical analysis, which we will discuss in more detail in the next post.

Introduction to Schriftenmetric

So what is Schriftenmetric? Scriftenmetric is the application of computer assisted research to palaeographical study of a given scribe or corpus. The method I have devised is not limited to Dead Sea Scrolls, but rather can be used on any corpus. The use of Schriftenmetric is still under investigation by myself, as I continue to learn of the various ways it can be used in Jewish studies. And how palaeographical information is best presented in graphical forms. For matters of reverse engineering scrolls, Schriftenmetric is essential. To understand the beauty of Schriftenmetric, we will need to spend some time thinking about Fonts and Encoding, Palaeography, and Statistics. In addition, we will need to think about a method to gather data, a method to store data, and a method to visualise our data. So, in the next post, let’s dive into these issues in greater detail.

A Note on Ethics in Digital Humanities Research

I would like to end this post with a brief comment on proper research ethics in digital humanities. The field of digital humanities is rapidly developing, and its importance to the humanities is patently clear. As a philologist and textual scholar, I resonate most with the pocket of digital humanities that addresses textual study of ancient Jewish, Christian, and Roman scribes and writers.

The development of algorithms to solve humanities problems is not devoid of the intellectual work invested in creating a model and/or solution. In other words, the processes of attaining a solution is as important in the field of digital humanities as are the research conclusions to traditional humanitarian research. The implications, therefore, are important for proper academic credit, recognition, and citation. Some have found my ideas about Schriftenmetric valuable, but continue to ignore the source from which they got the idea. I’ve presented on these ideas in several conference presentations. These ideas are part of my doctoral thesis and are copyright through the University of Toronto and through my blog copyright. If you find these posts interesting and would like to know more about my doctoral thesis, I encourage you to either cite this series of posts or contact me about proper citation and attribution of ideas. The details of my thesis are: From Ink Traces to Ideology: The Material, Text, and Compositional Development of the Manuscripts of the Community Rule at Qumran, Ph.D. Thesis. University of Toronto, 2020.

I find these quotes from Lawrence Schiffman and Moshe Bernstein helpful to explain why I even write these blog posts:3

The academic enterprise requires that a delicate balance be maintained between two competing interests which appear on the surface to be contradictory: the free exchange of information and the rights of an individual to his or her intellectual property.

So my own plea … is let’s learn from this [academic misconduct] to share our work with others, to disseminate it, making sure that it will only appear in our name eventually, but nevertheless to disseminate it, to share it with others, and in that way the product that we are going to be able to put before the public, both the scholarly and the popular one, will be far better as a result.
  1. See his discussion in John C. Trever, The Untold Story of Qumran (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1965).
  2. Frank Moore Cross, “The Oldest Manuscripts from Qumran,” Journal of Biblical Literature 74 (1955): 147–172. idem, “The Development of the Jewish Scripts,” in The Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. G.E. Wright (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 147–176; and idem. “The History of the Biblical Text in the Light of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert.” Harvard Theological Review 57 (1964): 281–299.
  3. Both quotes are taken from Michael Owen Wise, Norman Golb, and John J. Collins, eds., “Ethics Panel Discussion,” in Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site: Present Realities and Future Prospects (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1994), 455–497.

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