A Font-based Approach for Testing Space for Textual Reconstructions in Dead Sea Scrolls Manuscripts

One of the challenges of working with reconstructions of Dead Sea scrolls is checking the work of other scholars. In 1963, Hartmut Stegemann reconstructed the manuscript 1QHodayota, a collection of hitherto unknown psalms found only at Qumran. His groundbreaking work remained unpublished until 2009, so there has been relatively little work done to verify his fragment placements. I am writing a dissertation on this manuscript, so I need to carefully check the less certain parts of his reconstruction. My Sherman Centre project is dedicated to checking one of the most uncertain placements of fragments 10, 34, and 42.

An important aspect of evaluating Stegemann’s reconstruction involves testing the adequacy of the space between fragments for his proposals of textual reconstructions and the text from overlapping manuscripts. For example, 4QHodayota contains text that overlaps with 1QHodayota in column 7, allowing Stegemann to place fragments 34 and 42 near to fragment 10. If there is sufficient space between fragments in a reconstruction for the words supplied from other manuscript witnesses, then a reconstruction is valid—though not necessarily proven. However, if the spacing is inadequate, there are grounds for critiquing the reconstruction.

For testing the spacing between fragments, I am currently developing a custom font that is modelled on the hand of Scribe A of 1QHodayota. Other methods, such as calculating average letter spaces or cropping and supplying letters from other parts of the manuscript in Photoshop, can be time-consuming processes, especially if one has to reconstruct long stretches of text. However, if one has a font that can be sized and spaced to that of the manuscript, it is quick and simple to supply the text in a word processor and superimpose images of the fragments. However, if one wants to critique a fragment placement, it is best to use multiple approaches to strengthen the argument.

I learned about this approach from Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra at manuSciences ’15, a summer school that was devoted to scientific and interdisciplinary approaches for studying ancient manuscripts. When it was first introduced to me, the process of designing a custom font seemed too time-consuming and beyond my capabilities, but, after a little research and some trial-and-error, it was a manageable project. I used the open-source font editor, FontForge, to produce my font. The application allowed me to import images of letters that I cropped from the manuscript so I could quickly trace them and map them as glyphs onto a standard Unicode Hebrew font.

The take-away from this project summary is not that everyone should design his or her own font. Rather, regardless of the type of research problem one faces, it is worthwhile to try new approaches and develop new skill sets. One does not have to be a programmer or innovate a radically new method. With a little creativity, most projects can be tackled with existing tools and platforms.

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3 comments on “A Font-based Approach for Testing Space for Textual Reconstructions in Dead Sea Scrolls Manuscripts
  1. Matthew Davis says:

    Do you have to worry about abbreviations or suspensions with the fragments you’re working with? One of the issues I’ve found in trying to figure out what is in missing spaces is having to factor out suspended terminal letters and the like.

    • Matthew Davis says:

      Also, you should present on this if you have a chance. I’d be interested in hearing about it in more depth.

  2. Michael Johnson says:

    There are spacing variables, such as the substitution of “Lord” for the the divine name, which actually takes additional letter spaces. Also, the scribe may or may not write with fuller orthography—using additional characters to mark vowels. A font-based approach is best suited for projects where you have a complete parallel text and you are trying to place scattered fragments in a reconstruction. Jonathon Ben-Dov at the University of Haifa and others have done this recently with the Cryptic A script copy of the Rule of the Congregation.

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