In 1947, in a cave one mile west of the Dead Sea, a Bedouin shepherd stumbled upon large clay jars filled with ancient scrolls. A series of further excavations of the neighboring caves by archaaeologists in the 1950s revealed these scrolls were a small fragment of the 800-plus manuscripts we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These are the only known surviving Biblical documents written before the second century — and according to a discovery announced Tuesday, they may contain more revelations than previously known.

Using NASA-developed technology, a team of researchers led by archeologist Pnina Shor of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project were able to decipher texts on the scrolls that couldn’t be read with a naked eye. The text was found on fragments originally excavated from Cave 11 in 1956 — and since their discovery, they’ve sat in cigar boxes, their purpose unknown. However, on Tuesday, Shor and her team announced that not only were there unseen words on the bits of parchment, but the revealed text on at least one of the 2,000-year-old fragments “raises the possibility that it belonged to a still unknown manuscript.”

Dead Sea scrolls
The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Sea scrolls. 

These findings were presented at an international symposium held in Jerusalem and organized to mark the 70th anniversary of finding the scrolls. “The Dead Sea scrolls are a universal cultural heritage,” Shor wrote in an abstract presented at the conference. “As such, it is our duty to safeguard the scrolls and preserve them for future generations, sharing them with the public and with scholarly communities worldwide.”

The process of text identification was kicked off by Ph.D. student Oren Ableman, who worked through 82 fragments found in Cave 11 — a site where portions of Paleo-Hebrew manuscripts belonging to Leviticus, Job, and Psalms had already been found. At first glance, most of these fragments appeared blank, but infrared microscopes and multispectral imaging revealed words that were, according to Shor, “invisible to the eye.”

Multispectral imaging is a NASA-developed technology that captures image data within wavelengths that range across the electromagnetic spectrum. Its receptors for red, green, and blue allow it to extract high-resolution information that the human eye can’t pick up and, while it was designed for space-based imaging, it’s been used on various analysis of documents and paintings.

And because there are still 20 boxes of hundreds of parchment and papyrus fragments taken from these caves still unexamined and in storage, the hope is that this technology can reveal new wonders in the coming years. The implications of what can be found are huge because what has already been discovered has been game-changing. “These texts paint a picture of diversity and complexity within Jewish religious life and philosophy,” states the Israel Antiquities Authority. “They have revolutionized our understanding of the world from which rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity emerged.”