Israel's Antiquities Authority and Google announced Tuesday that they are joining forces to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls online, allowing both scholars and the general public widespread access to the ancient manuscripts for the first time.
The project will grant free, global access to the 2,000-year-old text — considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the last century — by uploading high-resolution images that are exact copies of the originals. The first photographs are slated to be online within months.
The scrolls will be available in their original languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and at first an English translation. Eventually other translations will be added, and Google's translation feature may also be incorporated. They will also be searchable.
Antiquities official Pnina Shor said the project will ensure the original 30,000 fragments that make up the scrolls are preserved while broadening access. The scrolls, which includes parts of the Hebrew Bible and treatises on communal living and apocalyptic war, have shed important light on Judaism and the origins of Christianity.
"Anyone in his office or on his couch will be able to click and see any scroll fragment or manuscript that they would like," she said.
Experts have long complained that only a small number of scholars were allowed access to the scrolls at any given time, which were found in caves near the Dead Sea in the late 1940s.
The delicate scrolls are kept in dark, temperature-controlled rooms at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where only four trained workers are permitted to handle the parchment and papyrus documents. Exposure to light risks damaging the scrolls.
Shor said scholars must coordinate viewing the scrolls with the authority, which receives about one request a month. Most are given access, but because no more than two people are allowed into the viewing room at once, scheduling conflicts arise.
Researchers are given three hours with only the limited section they have requested to view.
For the last 18 years, segments of the scrolls have been displayed in museums around the world, each time undergoing painstaking efforts to move them from each location. Shor said a typical 3-month exhibit in the U.S. draws more than 250,000 people.
Yossi Matias, an official from Google-Israel, said the project was part of a greater attempt to "break down barriers" and encourage the "dissemination and preservation of global heritage and culture."
Matias said Google has worked with European universities and Iraq's national museum to bring other texts and artifacts online, but the nature of the scrolls makes them more appealing to a greater public.