Why 3D Print Dead Sea Scrolls? Some Initial Observations on the Benefits of 3D Printing for Manuscript Reconstruction

[Originally published on the blog of the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship]

In the latest phase of my project, I have been experimenting with 3D printing Dead Sea Scroll fragments to see how they might be useful for reconstructing manuscripts. My work has focused mostly on the Thanksgiving Hymns and the War Scroll from Cave 1 (1QHand 1QM), though the question also applies to manuscript reconstruction in general.

Models of 1QM frg. 3 and 1QHa 10 in the process of being printed

 The question driving this experiment is whether 3D printing manuscripts (so far I have only printed fragments) offers enough gains for research to be worth the effort or whether it is just a gimmick that offers little of serious value. Although I have only just begun to 3D print portions of manuscripts, I can answer this question with a preliminary affirmative.

Before weighing the advantages of 3D printing, I should say more about what I mean by “3D printing Dead Sea Scrolls.” I think many people unfamiliar with the process would hear that phrase and conjure up images of a printer cranking out columns of plasticized manuscript that precisely replicate it down to the unevenness of its surface, its texture, and perhaps even its pliability. In an ideal world and with great effort it might be possible to do something along these lines, but with manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls it is not feasible. Since reconstructions should be built primarily on the images closest to the manuscript’s time of discovery, the starting point is not a three-dimensional manuscript but two-dimensional photos that were taken shortly after the manuscript’s unrolling. There is not sufficient data about depth in these photos, so characteristics like thickness, texture, and unevenness of the surface are lost to us. In theory we could capture this data from the manuscripts themselves by 3D scanning them, but much of the material is obscured by measures taken to conserve them, such as backing parts of columns and fragments with Japanese paper, enclosing them in Stabilitex (polyester netting), or mounting them between glass plates. Since the discovery of the Scrolls, the material has had 70 years to shrink and warp as the collagen has degraded and the skin has gelatinized, so there is no guarantee that accurate data would be recovered if it were possible to scan them.

My process and objectives are much simpler than printing an perfect facsimile. Manuscript reconstruction is primarily about accurately arranging fragments in their original positions in the manuscript. The most important features for this process are the shapes and edges of the fragments, any notable surface characteristics (peculiarities or patterns of the skin or papyrus), surface damages (mold, delamination, insect damage), writing (textual and paratextual), and any margins, seams or seam impressions where they have survived. In my initial printings, I have only sought to create scale printed models with accurate edges and which have just enough thickness to represent what I consider to be the distinctive features in relief. For example, in my printing of 1QM frg. 3, I inset the area of the where ink is visible on the fragment and raised the areas where significant mold is present.

3D Printed Model of 1QM frg. 3. Inset areas=ink. Raised surface=mold damage

This is fairly easy to do and results in a scaled model that isolates and emphasizes what a scholar considers to be diagnostically significant for the reconstruction. To date, I have only printed single fragments, but the process can be scaled up for entire columns, sheets, and manuscripts.

Benefits for Manuscript Reconstruction

The benefits of 3D printing reconstructions can be divided into two phases of the process: experimentation and dissemination. The first phase of manuscript reconstruction involves experimenting with arrangements of fragments by exploring the possibility of material joins of one fragment edge to another or the placing of fragments near one another in light of repeating patterns of damage that run through the entire scroll. This process involves a lot of trial and error. In the past, Scrolls scholars have taken photographic plates of the fragments and cut them out with scissors.


The backs of fragments cut out from a photographic plate and taped together. The front is not shown to avoid copyright infringement

Various hypotheses could be locked in by taping the fragments onto a sheet of paper and photocopying them. This process has been updated with the advent of image editing software like Photoshop or GIMP, which removes the arduous process of cutting out fragments by hand. Although platforms like Photoshop are sufficient for the basic task, they lack the tactile element of physically arranging material at scale. In Photoshop, one often has to zoom in to place fragments precisely, and it is easy to loose a sense of proportion when continuously working under magnification. There are also complications with version management and file size that can get out of control in the process of exploring the options with high quality images. 3D printed models of fragments are essentially fabricated elements of a Photoshop reconstruction that allow a scholar to quickly rough out reconstructions in analog before composing something more precisely in Photoshop. These preliminary arrangements of fragments can be quickly documented with a photo and filed away. Once the possibilities are narrowed down to the best candidates, they can be reproduced more exactingly as high definition composite images in Photoshop. This process gives a tactile familiarity with the fragments and a concrete sense of scale that is otherwise lost in purely digital process.

One might not be convinced of the value of 3D printed fragments for experimentation because everyone works differently—a tool that one person finds indispensable another might find superfluous—but the benefits for disseminating research are difficult to ignore. In Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship, one of the chief difficulties in disseminating the results of manuscript reconstructions has been their inability to persuade because they seem rather subjective. This is due in part to insufficient documentation of the arguments underlying manuscript reconstructions. The arguments deal with shapes and patterns, which are difficult to express clearly in the primary medium of the discipline: textual description. There are, however, ways to show one’s work using digital tools to create visualizations that document stages of the reconstructive argument that are otherwise difficult to express concisely in words, including but not limited to 3D printing.

3D printed models of fragments or complexes of related fragments can be used in presentations to give the audience a tactile experience of the reconstructive argument. The same benefits of the 3D printed models for the researcher in the experimentation phase also accrue to the specialist when evaluating the reconstruction. A better sense of scale and a first-hand examination of the reconstruction—perhaps even with the chance to experiment with their own alternatives—enables the audience to become a more active participant in the discussion. By isolating what the researcher considers to be diagnostically significant, the printed models also make the premises of reconstructive arguments more prominent. These benefits equip audiences in presentations to better interpret what the researcher sees in the images and to offer quality feedback on projects with an otherwise steep learning curve.

There are also applications of 3D printing for publications. The stereolithography (STL) files that are the basis for 3D printer instructions are very small and would not be burdensome to maintain as an online supplement for a journal article or book. STL files of configurations of key fragment clusters in a reconstruction would be useful not only for the reader evaluate the argument in the publication, but also as a starting point for their own alternative proposal. In this way, the models of the fragments can have an afterlife beyond the initial project if the project data is published.


My initial foray into 3D printing has yielded a handy tool for experimenting with manuscript reconstructions and for visualizing results for other researchers. As I have been 3D modelling my reconstructions for other visualizations in my Sherman Centre project, it has been a reflexive impulse to want to print them, just as we expect to be able to print documents to edit, evaluate, and disseminate them. I find that when I am writing, I do my best editing when I am working with a hard copy, and the same applies to manuscript reconstructions. I find there is a value to working physically with 3D printed surrogates for the manuscript rather than digitally mediating the process of reconstruction through a computer interface at every stage of research. So far, I have only scratched the surface of the uses of printed models of scroll fragments, but I have found that it is worth the effort. Consequently, when I am asked why I 3D print fragments, I will have to respond with my own question—why not? If 3D printing provides greater familiarity with the fragments and their reconstruction, not only for myself but also for audiences and future researchers, then it would be a shame not to.

Back to Scrolling Models of Dead Sea Scrolls

[Originally published on the blog of the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship]

In this blogpost, I will explain the connection between the initial phases of my work at the Sherman Centre, which focused on textual reconstructions in 1QHa, and how they feed into my current work on 3D modelling the War Scroll (1QM).[1] I will also address how these phases lay the groundwork for my ultimate objective, a reassessment of the reconstruction of cols. 1–8 of 1QHa. Before starting at the Sherman Centre, I began to do some exploratory work on a scrolling digital model of 1QHto better understand the patterns of damage that Hartmut Stegemann used to reconstruct the Scroll.[2] I was especially interested in cols. 1–8, which I wanted to better understand because the patterns of damage that Stegemann described were not obvious to me when I viewed the plates of the scroll in its unrolled state in his edition.[3] I proposed this project at manuSciences ’15, a Franco-German Summer School, organized around the theme, “From Fragments to Books—From Identification to Interpretation.” My poster proposed to address one of the biggest questions in the reconstruction of 1QHa, the placement of frgs. 10, 34, and 42 in col. 7. At this point, I pitched the method of digitally rolling the reconstruction of 1QHto see if the patterns of damage matched as Stegemann’s described in DJD 40. I did not, however, have a functional model yet because I was still experimenting with 3D modeling programs at the time.

For my project as a Sherman Centre fellow in 2015–16, I pursued a narrower study of 1QHfrgs. 10, 34, and 42, which focused on the spacing for the textual reconstructions that Stegemann had proposed between the fragments and the rest of the column. Stegemann’s textual reconstructions are not ultimately decisive for the fragment placements in col. 7, but this smaller study allowed me to experiment with methods and tools for estimating the space for textual reconstructions with fonts and cropped letters from other parts of the manuscript.[4] Eventually I will have to do this on a larger scale in the corresponding part of 4QHthat contains the same passage (1QH7:14–19//4QH8 i 6–12) as I assess alternative fragment placements. As I worked on this project, I found that reconstructive issues in 1QH7 are thoroughly intertwined with the first two sheets of the manuscript and the reconstruction of 4QHa.

To address the reconstructive issues in both scrolls, I needed an efficient way to experiment with material reconstructions and to demonstrate alternative reconstructions in a rolled state, which drew me back to my manuSciences ’15 proposal. One of the major critiques of the Stegemann method is that it leaves too much up to the imagination of the reader, who may lack the time, resources, or information to check the measurements of the reconstruction. In many cases the data underlying the reconstruction is only partially provided if it is not completely omitted. In the current phase of my work at the Sherman Centre, I am developing an approach for creating scrollable digital reconstructions that I can use to examine the patterns of damage in 1QHand 4QHa. I have chosen 1QM as my test case because, unlike 1QHand 4QHa, there are only minor questions about a few fragments, so we can see how well an almost entirely non-problematic reconstruction looks as a scrollable model while also seeing how it can shed light on the few outstanding or questionable fragment placements. In the process of rolling the reconstruction of 1QM, I found it useful for experimenting with reconstructive options and visualizing reconstructive proposals for publications and presentations. Rolling 1QM also offered an opportunity to reflect on the some of the limitations of the Stegemann method, which do not invalidate the method but are areas where the method has the potential to produce inaccurate or distorted reconstructions in certain situations.

The next phase in this research project that I would like to pursue after my dissertation will build on my work at the Sherman Centre and would examine in greater depth the feasibility of the reconstructions of 1QH1–8 and 4QHand explore alternative reconstructions of the two scrolls. This project would have implications for the text of some of the Hodayot psalms as well as our understanding of how these psalms were collected and anthologized in a period when the scriptural psalms also appear in collections of varying length and order. In other words, my Sherman Centre project is laying the groundwork and refining the tools that I will build on to pursue my research questions about these two important Hodayot manuscripts, which will in turn contribute to the larger discussion of psalms collections in the late Second Temple period.


[1]. 1QHodayotis a collection of approximately thirty previously unknown psalms. They thank and praise God for deliverance from adversaries and for knowledge of divine mysteries. Seven other highly fragmentary scrolls (1QHb, 4QHa–f) that contain various compilations of these psalms were also discovered in Caves 1 and 4 at Qumran. 1QM is a composite document that contains rules, psalms, and descriptions of an eschatological conflict between the sons of light and the sons of darkness.

[2]. Hartmut Stegemann and other Scrolls scholars have used repeating patterns of damages that formed while the manuscript was rolled to reconstruct manuscripts. The distance between each instance of the congruent damage is the circumference of the scroll at that particular point in the manuscript. This allowed Stegemann to estimate where fragments with similar shapes belonged in the manuscript even when the intervening parchment had completely decayed. For more see Hartmut Stegemann, “How to Connect Dead Sea Scroll Fragments,” BRev4.1 (1988): 1–11; “Methods for the Reconstruction of Scrolls from Scattered Fragments,” in Archaeology and History in the Dead Sea Scrolls: The New York University Conference in Memory of Yigael Yadin, ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman, JSPSup 8 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1990), 189–220; “The Material Reconstruction of 1QHodayot,” in Dead Sea Scrolls: Fifty Years after Their Discovery. Proceedings of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20-25, 1997, ed. L. H. Schiffman, E. Tov, and J. C. VanderKam (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society in cooperation with the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, 2000), 272–84.

[3]. Hartmut Stegemann and Eileen Schuller, DJD 40.

[4]. I experimented with approaches found in Bruce Zuckerman, Asher Levy, and Marilyn J. Lundberg, “A Methodology for the Digital Reconstruction of Dead Sea Scroll Fragmentary Remains,” in Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection, ed. Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke, PMB 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 36–58; “The Dynamics of Change in the Computer Imaging of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Inscriptions,” in Rediscovering the Dead Sea Scrolls: An Assessment of Old and New Approaches and Methods, Rediscovering the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 69–88; Asaf Gayer, Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, and Jonathan Ben-Dov, “A New Join of Two Fragments of 4QcryptA Serekh HaEdah and Its Implications,” Dead Sea Discoveries23.2 (2016): 139–54.


Gayer, Asaf, Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, and Jonathan Ben-Dov. “A New Join of Two Fragments of 4QcryptA Serekh HaEdah and Its Implications.” Dead Sea Discoveries23.2 (2016): 139–54.

Schuller, Eileen. “Hodayot.” Pages 69–254 in Qumran Cave 4.XX: Poetical and Liturgical Texts. Part 2. DJD XXIX. Edited by Esther Chazon et al. Oxford: Clarendon, 1999.

Stegemann, Hartmut. “How to Connect Dead Sea Scroll Fragments.” BRev4.1 (1988): 1–11.

———. “Methods for the Reconstruction of Scrolls from Scattered Fragments.” Pages 189–220 in Archaeology and History in the Dead Sea Scrolls: The New York University Conference in Memory of Yigael Yadin. Edited by Lawrence H. Schiffman. JSPSup 8. Sheffield: JSOT, 1990.

———. “The Material Reconstruction of 1QHodayot.” Pages 272–84 in Dead Sea Scrolls: Fifty Years after Their Discovery. Proceedings of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20-25, 1997. Edited by L. H. Schiffman, E. Tov, and J. C. VanderKam. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society in cooperation with the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, 2000.

Stegemann, Hartmut and Eileen Schuller. Qumran Cave 1.III: 1QHodayotawith Incorporation of 1QHodayotband 4QHodayota-f. DJD XL. Oxford: Clarendon, 2009.

Zuckerman, Bruce. “The Dynamics of Change in the Computer Imaging of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Inscriptions.” Pages 69–88 in Rediscovering the Dead Sea Scrolls: An Assessment of Old and New Approaches and Methods. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.

Zuckerman, Bruce, Asher Levy, and Marilyn J. Lundberg. “A Methodology for the Digital Reconstruction of Dead Sea Scroll Fragmentary Remains.” Pages 36–58 in Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection. Edited by Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke. Publications of the Museum of the Bible 1. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

* * *

Some Reflections on the Intersection between Conventional and Digital Approaches to Scrolls Research

Over the last seventy years, Dead Sea Scrolls research has carried on in a permanent state of revolution, with new methods, technologies, and bodies of evidence overturning or qualifying old consensuses. To current PhD students like myself, who are dissertating on the Scrolls, many of the recent advances in digital approaches and tools appear to be changing the face of the discipline; however, to seasoned scholars this revolutionary change is nothing new. Scrolls research has always been like Menelaus wresting an oracle from the shape-shifting Proteus—change and adaptation are the norm. The ill-conceived myth of the triumph of digital scholarship over conventional scholarship simply does not apply. The key consideration for early-career Scrolls scholars is how to follow in the footsteps of earlier generations in usefully integrating new tools and approaches without abandoning the conventional. During research that I carried out this summer in Jerusalem on the Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran (1QHodayota), I frequently found myself combining the old with the new to address pressing research questions.

1QHa is a particularly challenging scroll to study because unlike many of the rest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, new high quality images, such as high-resolution multispectral images or RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) images are not yet available. Even if they were, however, the plates in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University,[1] the Shrine of the Book images, and the plates in the edition of 1QHa in volume 40 of the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series would still be indispensable.[2]

The older images document the state of the manuscript in the years after its discovery and in the process of its unrolling—a resource that new digital tools or approaches cannot replace. Consequently, I find myself drawing heavily on conventional editions and photographs, even as I am making digital reconstructions of columns in GIMP and rolling them in three-dimensional environments to compare patterns of damage in digital modeling suites like Blender. When creating a reconstruction of a scroll in its rolled state, it is best to use these early images so that any modern shrinkage, decay, or damage are not baked into the model. Thus, even digital Scrolls research is forever anchored to those initial images.

In addition, when working on problems of material reconstruction, there are questions that cannot be answered relying solely on either editions or digital tools. Scrolls are three-dimensional objects, and certain aspects are not fully captured by existing images; e.g., texture, thickness, shrinkage, light damage, and the extent of delamination. What appear in photos to be patterns of repeating damages, or potential joins between fragments, may be ruled out upon first-hand inspection of the fragments themselves, especially with the help of conservators who are intimately familiar with the physical manuscripts and causes of damage. I found this to be the case when I visited the Shrine of the Book, where 1QHa is archived. Hasia Rimon, a conservator who has worked closely with the Shrine’s manuscripts since 2012, helped me to see and understand the condition of the manuscript and how it has been conserved since its discovery. The same applies for conservators at other institutions that conserve Dead Sea scrolls, most notably the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is responsible for the vast majority of the Judean Desert manuscripts, including the other Hodayot manuscripts.

Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum
Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum. Photo Credit: Author.

Furthermore, a visit to the Shrine of the Book or the IAA is the only way of tapping into the institutional memory of the discovery of the Scrolls and their condition over the course of the last seventy years. For example, anyone who has visited the Shrine of the Book will know of Irene Lewitt’s formidable knowledge of the whereabouts of the Shrine’s scrolls and their photos over the last 70 years—especially that of 1QHa and the other Hebrew University scrolls. A similar knowledge-base exists at many of the institutions in Jerusalem with historical ties to the Scrolls, like the Orion Center, the École Biblique, the Rockefeller Museum, and the Albright Institute.

One of the perennial methodological concerns for digital scholarship is how to use new tools and approaches judiciously and in ways that actually advance the field. For Scrolls research, implementing new digital approaches requires a thorough consideration of the conventional resources, tools, and institutional memories to gain new insights. This combination of innovation and convention is nothing new—it is business as usual for Scrolls scholarship in making use of every available means to yield new insights into the Dead Sea Scrolls.

[Expanded from 2017 Newsletter of the Orion Center for the Dead Sea Scrolls. First published on the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship Blog]

[1] E. L. Sukenik, The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1955).

[2] Hartmut Stegeman and Eileen Schuller, DJD 40.

Works Cited

Schuller, Eileen and Hartmut Stegemann. Qumran Cave 1.III: 1QHodayota with Incorporation of 1QHodayotb and 4QHodayota-f. DJD XL. Oxford: Clarendon, 2009.

Sukenik, E. L. The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1955.