Robert H. Johnston: Examiner of Dead Sea Scrolls, Dies at 77

Historians in the News

Robert H. Johnston, an archaeologist who helped develop a way to read ancient texts blackened or faded by time, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, died last Wednesday at his home in Brighton, N.Y. He was 77.

He spent more than a month in the hospital recently after several minor falls followed by infections and minor strokes, said his wife, Louise, but she could not point to a single cause of death.

Mr. Johnston, who for two decades was a professor and administrator at the Rochester Institute of Technology, worked in digital imaging to tease out ancient text, often minute fragments of individual characters, that had not been seen for as long as 2,000 years. This involved manipulating technology first used for medical diagnosis and enhancing pictures taken from military satellites.

Along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, texts from the time of Christ, Mr. Johnston decoded parts of a 10th-century parchment copy of a famous treatise by the Greek mathematician Archimedes that had been used as the fabric for a 13th-century prayer book, among other projects.

Mr. Johnston's team often extracted only tiny but critical bits. Examining a red-ink scroll of the Old Testament book of Samuel yielded only one previously unknown character. The team found only 18 new characters in their examination of color photographs of the Temple Scroll, which at 28 feet is the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some goatskin scrolls had disintegrated into 100,000 fragments, some as small as a baby's fingernail. Sometimes all that could be seen was a dark-red scrap of material. But once it was digitalized and the background lightened,"the characters just pop out," Dr. Johnson said in 1993 in an interview with The Globe and Mail, the Toronto newspaper.

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