Salty tales: new mystery for the Dead Sea Scrolls

Chemical analysis of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls has revealed some surprising findings – and added another layer of mystery to the famous documents.

The term “Dead Sea Scrolls” generally refers to a collection of 981 intact or reconstructed manuscripts written between 300 BCE and 100 CE. Originally part of much larger collection of Jewish writings, they were placed in clay jars and buried inside caves on the northern side of the Dead Sea by the residents of the town of Qumran, later razed by the Romans.

The scrolls were discovered, still hidden and remarkably well preserved – given the passage of two millennia – inside 11 caves, between 1946 and 1956.

The first seven unearthed were found by local nomads, who subsequently sold them to an antiquities dealer in a nearby market. Eventually they found their way to a US ancient historian who recognised their cultural (and material) worth and triggered an extensive and coordinated search for more.

The scroll at the centre of the current research – known as the Temple Scroll – had long been recognised as remarkable for its structure. For a start, it is eight metres long yet barely 0.1 millimetres thick. Like all the scrolls it is made from stretched and treated animal skin, but – unlike the rest – it was originally bright white, instead of dun or yellowish, affording remarkable contrast between it and the ink used. It is also unusually well preserved.

These properties drove researchers led by environmental engineer Admir Masic from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US to try to unlock its secrets.

To do this, they subjected a small, disconnected fragment to x-ray and Raman spectroscopies, and discovered that it was indeed unique among the collection.

Interestingly, the text was written on the “flesh” side, rather than the “hair” side, of the parchment, in sharp contrast to most surviving documents from the period.

More significantly, however, the surface of the parchment was covered in a uniform layer of inorganic substances, which analysis revealed to comprise various salts of a form that typically suggest evaporated brines.

The salt densities and mix did not match those typically found around the Dead Sea, strongly suggesting that the Temple Scroll was written elsewhere and subsequently, for reasons currently unknown, transported to Qumran – a subject, note Masic and colleagues in the journal Science Advances, for further study.

The analysis, however, reveals that the practice of recording information 2000 years ago was much more sophisticated than it was a millennium later.

“It shows that at the dawn of parchment making in the Middle East, several techniques were in use, which is in stark contrast to the single technique used in the Middle Ages,” says co-author Ira Rabin, from Hamburg University in Germany.

There is one more way in which the Temple Scroll is remarkable – and that is the fact that it survived at all.

“Allegedly,” write the authors, “a group of Bedouins found it wrapped in cloth in a jar in 1956 in Cave 11 of Qumran and then sold it to an antiquities dealer who replaced the original encasement with cellophane and then transferred it from the jar into a shoebox that he hid under the floor in his home.”

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