The Dead Sea Scrolls

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This ancient scroll fragment records early religious history. Can you read ancient Hebrew? This portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls is on exhibit in Chicago.

Courtesy Field Museum of Natural History







































Removing adhesive is tedious work, and it takes patience. But this scroll waited two millennia to see the light of day, so haste could make waste.

Courtesy Field Museum of Natural History

  2 JUNE 2000 Got a coveted antique table? Then you know not to invite squalling bands of spill-prone brats to dinner. But what if your treasure was a bunch of fading, brittle scrolls, written in three ancient languages, and that now exist on 100,000 fragments of dead-animal skin and papyrus? What if those scrolls contained the earliest written versions of the Old Testament? How, in other words, would you care for the Dead Sea Scrolls?

a segment of the Dead Sea scrollsDating from between the third century BC and about 70 AD, these precious scrolls were written before the Bible was codified. Nevertheless, they contain all the books of the Hebrew Bible (except Esther), as well as apocrypha -- trimmings from the Biblical cutting room floor. The scrolls were probably written and used by the Essenes, a Jewish sect. They contain priceless clues to the origin of the first major monotheistic religion, Judaism, which was the root of Christianity and then Islam. The scrolls contain, for example, suggestive references to the "son of God" and baptismal rites that seem to presage Christianity.

Handle with care
How would you handle such treasures? Gingerly. You'd put them behind glass to prevent theft. You'd control the humidity so the parchment would not suck up moisture and rot. You'd lower the lights, and prevent viewers from popping flashbulbs that would degrade the ink. Light, especially in the shorter violet and ultraviolet wavelengths, accelerates chemical reactions, causing fading and brittleness. It also bleaches both the substrate and the ink. On paper, for example, it accelerates oxidation, a chemical breakdown, and loss of strength.

And you'd keep your scrolls close to home, in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.

The Shrine is no lending library, which may explain the excitement over the display of 15 scrolls at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

We Why Filers got to wondering: How do you preserve ancient manuscripts? How can you avoid loving to death scrolls written on papyrus, and sheep and goat skin, using ink derived from pomegranates and walnuts.

Got it on tape a roll of transparent tape
Preserving ancient documents is less a science than a trial-and-error process. Much of the current conservation effort is aimed at expurgating a cardinal sin of the Biblical scholars who first examined the scrolls. This secretive group published their results too slowly for many colleagues. Worse, during their period of exclusive access, they mended the parchment with cellophane tape -- think Scotch tape.

If taping the backs was not heretical enough, from an art-conservation standpoint, when the scrolls were inscribed on both sides, the scholars simply taped over the lettering.

Nobody could get away with that today, unless they were restoring 1967 Fillmore West posters. So why was it acceptable in the 1950s, '60s and 1970s? The group that adulterated the scrolls "didn't have modern conservation technology, they were scholars, not conservators," explains Ariel Orlov, senior coordinator for temporary exhibitions at the Field. "It was not the people, it was the time, and what people knew about parchment conservation."

These days, says Susan Davis, an archivist and Ph.D. candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, conservators prefer reversible processes. Water-soluble pastes are preferable to heat-set or solvent-based adhesives, she says, so it will be simpler to undo the repair if that's necessary.

a restorer works on the scrollsCrud be gone!
While tape may have eased the examination process, it left a gooey crud that must now be removed, a square centimeter at a time, from the scrolls, without harming the ink. If you visit the Field, check out the large fish tank, where a conservator is patiently removing that residue with dabs of methyl ethyl ketone or acetone.

After the blasphemous adhesive is removed, the conservators may mount the fragments on a fine paper with a water-based art-conservation adhesive. Alternatively, they may sew a pocket for the scroll in fine netting. If the scroll is illegibly dark, the writing may be read under infra-red light. Then comes the real fun -- trying to figure out which fragment goes where -- and what these messages from the past actually signify.

Experience indicates that the ideal storage conditions for these ancient books resembles the dark, dry caves in the Judean Desert where they were found. One final note: Since a stable temperature seems best, please keep your mitts off the thermostat when you leave!

-David Tenenbaum








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