26 October 2010

Google to put Dead Sea Scrolls online

Google is getting into the conservation business, as the AP reports:

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.

This is the future of epigraphy and papyrology: open-source texts, available to the world, worked on collaboratively online. Heck, it's been the future: the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) was already going 10 years ago. I was lucky to know one of the pioneers in digitizing papyri at Michigan, Traianos Gagos†, who is sorely missed. Traianos understood that being open with data and kind to colleagues would produce more and better scholarly results.

It sounds obvious, but mentality that archaeological data is a private stash 'owned' by one scholar has not totally faded away. Even I'm old enough to remember the early 1990s controversy over 'freeing' the Dead Sea Scrolls from a cartel of scholars who had exclusive publishing rights (see this book, or this old chestnut from William Safire on the case).

Archaeologists and allied trades need to learn that this mentality is counterproductive: instead of being afraid of the non-expert, we need to recruit them and figure out to put their enthusiasm to work! Keeping data private only fuels the ravings of the ancient astronaut theorists.

These Dead Sea Scrolls conspiracy videos sure are fun though.

Much more fun than the stupid action movie soundtrack and fuzzy-light 'reenactments' that Nat Geo is pushing anyway...

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