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Scientists Decode Dead Sea Scrolls with DNA and Infrared Digital Photography
Digital (top) and digital infrared images of the Genesis Apocryphon
[Photographed by Michael Maggen, Paper Conservation Laboratory; Copyright the Israel Museum Jerusalem]
Sixty years after the accidental discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by a Bedouin shepherd in the caves of Qumran, powerful technologies like infrared digital photography and DNA analysis are helping scientists piece together more than 40,000 fragments of the ancient manuscripts. The work is offering a glimpse into the foundations of monotheism and its early adherents, a top scrolls scholar said at AAAS.
In a lecture sponsored by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, told a packed auditorium that while many texts were well-preserved in the dry Judean desert air, scientists were forced to turn to DNA analysis to assemble the ancient fragments into their original manuscripts.
"There are no [similar books] known before Qumran," Roitman said during his 18 October talk at AAAS headquarters. "How to you reconstruct a book that is unknown? You use DNA."
Scientists hope to reconstruct several documents by establishing genetic fingerprints for the animal and papyrus parchment fragments and matching them with others containing the same DNA.
DNA has also allowed researchers to identify a potential hierarchy of manuscript importance by focusing on the species of animal hide used in its production.
Scientists believe that documents written on hides from animals considered ritually pure by Judaic tradition, goat or calf, have a higher ritual importance.
For example, archaeologists contend that the nine-meter Temple Scroll, which provides a detailed procedure for reconstructing the ideal Temple in Jerusalem and is written on goat hides, is among the most ritually significant discoveries at Qumran.
Conversely, scholars believe those fragments "written on gazelle or ibex, which are clean but not ritually pure," are of less religious importance.
To date, archaeologists have uncovered roughly 40,000 fragments from more than 900 different manuscripts in 11 caves near the ancient ruins of Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Most were found wrapped in linen and stored in clay pots.
Excavated between 1947 and 1956, the texts are composed of three types of documents; biblical manuscripts, early versions of the canonical Old Testament; apocrypha, non-canonical books similar to those in the Old Testament; and commentaries, other documents discussing Biblical books and law.
While some texts are written in Aramaic or Greek, 80-85% are in one of three Hebrew scripts, including proto-Tannaitic Hebrew found on the Copper Scroll, a manuscript written on thin copper sheets detailing 64 buried gold and silver treasures.
"[The Copper Scroll] is a story that reminds us of Indiana Jones," Roitman joked. "You have Bedouins, Jews, treasures, and ancient manuscripts!"
In 1949, scientists using carbon-14 dating techniques dated the Dead Sea Scrolls to be somewhere between 1900 and 2200 years old, at that time predating the oldest known Biblical texts in Hebrew, the medieval Aleppo Codex (Tiberias, 920 CE) and Leningrad Codex (Cairo, 1010 CE), by more than 1000 years.
In dating the manuscripts, scientists were forced to examine the linen wrappings because until the late 1970s, five-10 grams of material had to be burned to get a proper carbon-14 analysis.
Additionally, scientists analyzed the Dead Sea Scrolls using paleographic dating techniques by looking at the character strokes and script formation. When compared with other documents found in the area, the handwriting analysis further validated the carbon-14 linen dating.
More recently, scientists have employed infrared digital photography to decipher texts distorted by discoloration, fragmentation, ink deterioration, and multiple parchment layers too fragile to remove.
Using an infrared camera, scientists were able to capture the dark text by using a filter to restrict the light from the parchment allowing scholars a clear picture of the darkening manuscripts.
Among the many significant discoveries found through infrared photography was the clarification of a Genesis Apocryphon, a non-canonical retelling of the Bible's first book in the first-person, including verses detailing a dream by Abraham while in Egypt.
"Thanks to this [tattered] document, we know how Jews read and interpreted these chapters 2,000 years ago, Roitman offered. "It's not a Mona Lisa, but it is very important for scholars."
While relatively little is known about the majority of the manuscripts, even less is known about the people of Qumran and their relationship to the scrolls.
The most prevalent description of ancient Qumran is that of a home to the Essenes, a Jewish sect that fled Jerusalem.
Flourishing from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st CE, experts contend that the Essenes fled because of theological differences with mainstream Judaism concerning diet, oaths, celibacy, and the role of sacrifices.
"The majority of scholars argue that Qumran was a religious community of priests that left Jerusalem . . . to build a community in the desert," Roitman asserted. "To come to the desert was to come back to the sources . . . the Jewish people were born in the desert."
During excavations of the ruins, archaeologists found baths, cemeteries, combs, plates, a scriptorium with inkwells, and a ceramics workshop with the technical capabilities to make pots with chemical similarities to those found housing the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting a positive link between the pottery in the caves and the ruins.
In addition, archaeologists studying the topology (shape) of the Qumran pots suggest that they share prominent characteristics with those found in the caves.
Although chemical analysis indicated that several cave jars were made from clay found near Qumran, it also showed material from five other locations, suggesting that the scrolls might have originated in many different sites.
"This is something we still have to prove," Roitman said.
Some experts believe that the caves served as a library for the Qumran people. Others, like Roitman, suggest the scrolls were hidden in the caves by the Essenes when the Roman army invaded somewhere around 70 CE.
While the scrolls spent roughly two millennia hidden in desert caves, many of the priceless manuscripts are now prominently displayed at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Shaped like a clay jar, the Shrine of the Book resembles the fragments' 2200-year history, only this one is climate-controlled in the middle of Israel's capital.
In addition to being displayed in museums, DNA analysis, infrared photography, and high-speed computers have allowed several of scrolls to be displayed digitally online.
For example, the Shrine of the Book offers on-line visitors the chance to view a complete 2,000 year-old scroll of the Book of Isaiah—a religious and scientific triumph for Israel.
"The book of Isaiah is the gem of Jewish nation," Roitman concluded.
8 November 2006