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Robert H. Johnston, 77; Explored Ancient Documents With Digital Technology

October 29, 2005|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Robert H. Johnston, an archeologist and teacher who combined his interest in ancient texts with digital imaging technology to help uncover new information about the Dead Sea Scrolls and other rare documents, died Oct. 19 at his home in Rochester, N.Y. He was 77.

Johnston died after a series of health problems, including several infections and a stroke, his wife, Louise, told The Times on Thursday.

A longtime faculty member of the Rochester Institute of Technology, he brought antiquities and digital technology together in the early 1990s when he was acting director of the school's imaging science center. He and several colleagues began to analyze photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from around the time of Christ, hoping to uncover new data.

"Bob was a pioneer," said Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project at USC. "He built a bridge between technical enhancement and the humanities."

Zuckerman supplied Johnston with photographs of the so-called Temple Scroll, which is 28 feet, the longest and one of the most important in the Dead Sea collection.

Johnston and his team, including Roger L. Easton, an imaging scientist on the school faculty, as well as others at Eastman Kodak Co. and the Xerox Corp., found 18 Hebrew letters on the scroll, which describes an ideal Hebrew temple.

"That might not sound like a lot, but whole matters of history can turn on a single, specific letter," Zuckerman said.

Johnston and his team made other breakthroughs when they examined a 10th century copy of a treatise by Archimedes, the Greek mathematician who died in 212 BC.

The original Archimedes text, "On the Method of Mechanical Theorems," had been erased so the parchment could be reused as a prayer book. In addition to new text, the pages were covered with painted images and candle wax.

"We were able to extract things that had been trapped," Easton said Thursday of the book and other documents he and Johnston examined. "Bob was the conduit between the scholars and the technicians."

Once the first several pages of the Archimedes text had been analyzed, they were displayed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in 1999 to show what digital technology had revealed.

"The process they developed is unprecedented," Richard Leson of the museum's department of manuscripts and rare books said. Earlier, Leson said, "We had references to the Archimedes text but we didn't have access."

Born in Redding, Pa., Johnston graduated from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania before earning a master's degree in fine arts at Columbia University and a doctorate at Pennsylvania State University.

He worked in academia for some years before joining the faculty of Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970. He was dean of the school's College of Fine and Applied Arts for 22 years and acting director of the science imaging center for two years. He retired in 1994 and was named an emeritus dean.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren.

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