New Archaeological Study: Mathematical Models Work Well in Theory – Not Reality

Current method for determining the missing lengths of ancient scrolls unreliable and must be reviewed.

Ariel, Israel, November 10, 2020 --( Many documents from the ancient world have been preserved in the form of a scroll, the most famous collections being the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Herculaneum papyri. The importance of such ancient scrolls for the study of the past cannot be overstated. Over time most of these important artifacts have suffered significant damage and require reconstruction.

Scholars have long used mathematical models to estimate the missing length of deteriorated scrolls from ancient Egypt, Qumran, Herculaneum, and elsewhere. Based on such estimations, the content of ancient literature as well as the process of its composition is deduced. Though theoretically reasonable, many practical problems interfere with the method. In a new study published in the PLOS ONE journal, carried out by Dr. Eshbal Ratzon, from the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Ariel University, and Professor Nachum Dershowitz of the School of Computer Science at Tel Aviv University, the authors examined this method empirically and concluded that it works well in theory, however, its margin of error - when trying to estimate the length of a real scroll�is simply too large to be trusted and cannot be used as is. Ratzon and Dershowitz�s analysis demonstrates that a major review is needed to accurately determine the likely range of possible length of previously estimated scrolls.

Using the current method, researchers attempt to estimate how much of a scroll is missing by measuring its circumference at a certain point, and then estimating how many rolls could fit inside it. �The lengths of dozens or even more of scrolls were estimated based on this method. The conclusions were supposed to teach us about the missing portions of the scrolls, the relations of several copies of the same composition to each other, the redaction process of these texts, scribal practices, the canonization process of the Hebrew Bible and more. But, if this method is unreliable, all these estimations will have to be redone differently,� stated Dr. Ratzon. �This method is used in several disciplines including: Egyptology, classics, and Jewish studies. It gives estimations for the manufacturing of ancient scrolls, and for copying texts onto them. Since we show it is unreliable, all these estimations will have to be re-evaluated. This may modify our picture of the ancient literary world,� added Ratzon.

Moving forward, Dr. Ratzon offers words of caution when studying these scrolls, �We should be skeptical regarding theories based on the length of ancient scrolls, as for now we don't have a sound method for determining the missing length of a scroll.�

The research was funded by the Deutsch-Israelische Projektkooperation (DIP) and the Israel Science Foundation.

To receive a copy of the study, photos or for further comment by one of the researchers, please be in touch using the contact information below.

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