Artificial intelligence has helped to solve a long-standing mystery concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls. The technology confirms that one of the ancient manuscripts – the Great Isaiah Scroll – was penned by two scribes who wrote with very similar handwriting, rather than being the result of a single person’s work.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a set of ancient Hebrew manuscripts comprising Biblical and Jewish texts, found in caves near the Dead Sea in the mid-20th century.

The Great Isaiah scroll is a copy of the Book of Isaiah that is found in both the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament. The copy was completed around the 2nd century BC, and is written using the Hebrew alphabet.

“Before the discovery of the scrolls, we practically only had medieval manuscripts from the year 1000 [for studying the early history of this text]. These Dead Sea Scrolls are like a time machine,” says Mladen Popović at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Read more: DNA analysis sheds new light on ancient biblical Dead Sea Scrolls

“They allow us to travel way back in time, even to the time that the Hebrew Bible was still being written. So, the scrolls provide us with a unique vantage point to study the culture behind what became the Bible.”

Scholars weren’t previously able to determine whether the Great Isaiah Scroll was the work of just one or several scribes because the handwriting was very similar throughout the more than 7-metre-long parchment scroll.

Popović and his colleagues utilised artificial intelligence to analyse digital images of the manuscript to determine whether one person wrote the scroll or if multiple people with similar handwriting worked on it together, looking closely at variation in the shape and style of the letters that cannot be spotted easily by the human eye. They found that the scroll was separated into two halves, each written by a different scribe.

“Part of the reason why artificial intelligence research was needed to allow the authors of this groundbreaking study to confirm the identification of two different scribes, is that the two hands are rather similar and may be compatible with a single scribe who changed his pen,” says Charlotte Hempel at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

“The authors also open up the fascinating question of whether this level of affinity between the scribal hands points to a stellar professional, able to ‘match’ another hand or whether we are dealing with a shared scribal training environment,” says Hempel.

Future analysis of the remaining Dead Sea Scrolls could tell us more about the scribes, says Popović.

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0249769