Conserving one of the world’s greatest manuscript collections

An early attempt at conservation. Here we see a scroll bearing the psalms unrolled on a work surface. (Photo: Nayib Albina)

The Dead Sea Scrolls are widely considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in modern times. penned 2,000 years ago, the scrolls are the oldest written record of biblical texts ever discovered. how has this great collection, hidden for so many years in Judea’s solitary desert caves, survived? Abigail Vanderhart reveals the past, present, and future of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Nearly 75 years ago, in the heart of Bethlehem, two bedouin shepherds walked into Kando’s cobbler’s shop with four rolls of parchment in hand. Jum’a and Muhammed ed-Dib had found the scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea, stored inside tall ceramic jars. Unaware of their discovery’s true value, Jum’a and Muhammed sold the parchments to Kando, who was both a cobbler and an antiquities dealer. If the parchment had no historic value, at least Kando could use it as leather for cobbling. Thankfully, Kando saw the potential significance of the scrolls, and did not use them to repair shoes. Although he could not read the letters on the parchment, they resembled ancient Syriac writing Kando had seen in Bethlehem’s Orthodox Church. This prompted him to offer the scrolls to Archbishop Samuel, who purchased them for 24 Palestine pounds – about $100 at the time.

The first examples of the texts now collectively known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1940s. We now know that they were hidden during the 1st century AD in tall jars within numerous caves, including this one at Qumran.

Meanwhile, Professor E L Sukenik from the Hebrew University heard rumours about scrolls discovered near the Dead Sea from an Armenian friend. Intent on investigating the discovery, Sukenik and his friend met on opposite sides of the militarised border separating West and East Jerusalem. Peering through the barbed wire, Sukenik examined the sample fragment his friend brought. Sukenik was convinced that the scrolls were authentic, and the pair travelled through the military zones to Bethlehem. On 29 November 1947, the very same day the United Nations voted in favour of establishing a State of Israel, Sukenik purchased three scrolls from an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem.

Modern conservation treatment. Here we see a fragment being carefully cleaned.

Sukenik also learned about Archbishop Samuel’s four scrolls, which had been taken to St Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem. By February 1948, however, Archbishop Samuel’s assistant at St Mark had recognised the value of the manuscripts. He made inquiries at the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR), which is today the W F Albright Institute of Archaeological Research. After several communications, Professor William F Albright confirmed that the manuscripts were authentic 2,000-year-old writings. With the War of Independence looming on the horizon, ASOR advised Samuel to take the scrolls abroad for safekeeping. It was not until 1 June 1954, when the scrolls appeared for sale through an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal, that they were purchased for the State of Israel. At last, the original seven scrolls were reunited.

Discoveries throughout the 1950s and ’60s revealed scrolls hidden along the Dead Sea’s western shore, as far north as Wadi Daliyeh and southward to Masada. The earliest discoveries, however, were made within 11 caves near Khirbet Qumran, an archaeological site close to the Dead Sea’s north-west shore. Scholars generally agree that Qumran was home to a Jewish sectarian community that observed strict laws of purity. The site was at its zenith during the end of the 1st century BC and beginning of the 1st century AD, about the same time many of the scrolls were written. Excavations at Qumran revealed more of the type of cylindrical jar the scrolls were stored in, inkwells, and possibly a ‘scriptorium’ where the scrolls were written. These discoveries, together with the scrolls’ proximity to the site, led scholars to conclude the documents belonged to the Qumran community.

A plate is opened to access the scroll within.

This being so, why were the scrolls found in inaccessible caves rather than at Qumran? One theory suggests the scrolls were hidden for safekeeping. The Romans razed Qumran in AD 68, during the Great Revolt. Perhaps the inhabitants anticipated the coming destruction and hid their precious texts in the surrounding caves, where they remained untouched for centuries.

In total, the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, as they began to be called, are a collection of approximately 1,000 manuscripts, preserved in over 25,000 fragments. The texts include unique sectarian writings, as well as every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. They were written between 250 BC and AD 68: centuries that were pivotal in the history of both Judaism and Christianity. The scrolls pre-date all other known biblical writings by at least 1,000 years, and are considered by many to be the most significant archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

From caves to conservation

The arid climate of the Judean Desert preserved the scrolls for some 2,000 years. When the scrolls were removed from the caves and brought to Jerusalem, a change in elevation of about 1,200m, the light exposure and more-humid climate accelerated the scrolls’ deterioration.

The interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls makes them a popular component of exhibitions. This example is being prepared to go on show. Each appearance of three months is followed by a five-year ‘rest’.

The scrolls suffered further damage after their discovery, due to unintentional improper handling. Scholars pieced the fragments together using adhesive tape. They also moistened the parchment and flattened it loosely between plates of window glass. Sadly, this treatment accelerated deterioration rather than preventing it. The pressure of the glass and aging of the adhesives made the parchment darken and become extremely brittle. In the 1960s and ’70s, about 400 plates of scroll fragments were removed from their glass frames in an attempt to undo this damage. Unfortunately, the methods used to remove the adhesive tape and strengthen the parchment resulted in even more damage.

When the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) was established in 1990, one of its first projects was to preserve the scrolls. Recognising the severity of the situation, the IAA built a climate-controlled conservation lab and appointed four full-time conservators to treat the scrolls. They worked with international experts to develop conservation treatments that could be reversed if necessary.

A fragment of Deuteronomy after undergoing infrared imaging at the IAA scroll lab. It demonstrates how hi-tech methods can make writing visible once more.

Today, the IAA adheres to a strict protocol for treating and preserving the scrolls. Work is still under way to undo the problems caused by earlier conservation treatments. The most time-consuming task requires removing the adhesive tape without causing further damage. The adhesive tape, found mostly on the back of the parchments, is usually removed mechanically with a heated scalpel. Since, in most cases, the aged adhesives penetrated the scroll fragments, mechanical removal alone is not sufficient. The full extraction of adhesives requires a chemical procedure, which may be repeated when necessary. Once the embedded adhesives have been extracted, tears, cracks, and edges are reinforced from the back. The IAA estimates that roughly another 20 years are needed to treat the entire collection, but the conservation process never really ends. The scrolls must be regularly monitored and revisited for maintenance.

After treatment, scroll fragments are arranged on acid-free cardboard, attached with hinges of Japanese tissue paper and safely stored in the IAA’s climate-controlled vault. For optimal preservation, a temperature of 20°C and relative humidity of 48% are maintained where the scrolls are worked with or stored. The IAA is currently building a new facility, the Lunder Family Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation and Preservation Laboratory. It will be dedicated solely to the conservation and preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At this new lab, visitors will have the opportunity to observe the painstaking efforts of IAA conservators as they treat these priceless texts.

Oren Ableman, scroll researcher at the Dead Sea Scrolls unit of the IAA, examines how newly legible ink traces on a fragment may fit into the text of the Great Psalms Scroll.

Unsurprisingly, there is worldwide interest in viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls. When travelling to a new exhibition, the scrolls are carefully prepared in a capsule specifically designed to ensure that climate conditions remain stable during transportation and display. The IAA also ensures the receiving venue follows strict protocols to regulate climate and light exposure. For display, the fragments are sewn between two layers of polyester net, stretched in acid-free mounts. These are then enclosed in a frame of polycarbonate plates. To further protect the manuscripts, the IAA rotates the scrolls that are being exhibited. After three months on display, a scroll must ‘rest’ in its climate-controlled home for a period of five years before travelling or being displayed again.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 99 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

Images: Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority, unless otherwise stated