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The Peculiar Life Of The Dead Sea Scrolls

A Dead Sea Scroll containing Psalms text. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After spending more than two thousand years in peaceful hibernation, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) have had a rough six decades. Discovered in several dry caves near the Dead Sea from 1947 through 1956, the texts experienced a series of travel and conservation adventures that border on mishandling, says Ira Rabin, a staff scientist at Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM).

Rabin has published several scientific papers on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have historical and religious importance because they contain early versions of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament as well as other important Jewish writings. I recently met Rabin at a cafe in Berlin, where she described to me the potpourri of treatments that these texts—most of which are written on animal skin parchment–have received since their discovery.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been covered in castor oil and glycerin as well as plastic consolidants (the latter of which is particularly unwise because no plastic stays in good shape for more than a few decades). Other treatments include Fuller’s Earth, a clay-like material, and being attached to glass plates using adhesive tape.

On the plus side, last year, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were digitized for online viewing by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

But from her analytical studies of the scrolls and from her former role as scientific advisor with the IAA, Rabin told me she is generally worried that the scrolls are being exhibited too much around the world. By her count, some of the scrolls are on display for over 200 days in a year. Rabin is concerned that the handling and exposure to light, humidity and traveling is accelerating the degradation of these texts.

Besides providing an analytical assessment of the scrolls’ degradation status, Rabin says that science can also help answer historical questions that remain hotly disputed by scholars. Researchers still don’t know, for example, where and how the scrolls were produced.

To answer the “where” question, Rabin and colleagues evaluated the ratio of bromine and chlorine in a collection Dead Sea Scrolls, and published the newest results in July. (I previously wrote about the technique’s proof-of-principle.) Bromine and chlorine are both found in sea water. These chemical species enter the animal parchment during an ancient processing step wherein the animal skins are soaked in sea water. Since the bromine to chlorine ratio varies in different water at different locations, the researchers posited that the ratio can be used as a geographic fingerprint.

Using this theory, Rabin and colleagues report that some of the parchments were indeed processed in Dead Sea water and thus were produced near where they were found. Other parchments in the collection had bromine to chlorine ratios that suggested the parchments were processed further afield from the coast, possibly in sinkholes.

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