A British university has discovered that “blank” pieces of leather parchment taken from the famed Qumran caves are not blank at all.
Instead, they are now considered to be authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments — the only ones in Britain. And their newly elevated status stands in stark contrast to artifacts held by a growing number of prominent United States institutions who this year learned that their very expensive Dead Sea Scroll fragments were frauds.
The discovery that the British parchment pieces were not blank was made at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, by King’s College London Prof. Joan Taylor.
“Looking at one of the fragments with a magnifying glass, I thought I saw a small, faded letter — a lamed, the Hebrew letter ‘L,'” said Taylor in a press release.
Examining dozens of fragments, her multidisciplinary team would eventually find many more letters on four of them — “readable Hebrew/Aramaic text written in carbon-based ink.” And the most substantial fragment yielded the remains of four lines of text — possibly from the Book of Ezekiel — including one clear word: “Shabbat.”
When she first saw the letters, said Taylor, “I thought I might be imagining things.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a cache of some 950 scrolls of scriptures and other religious writings dating from 3rd century BCE to 1st century CE that were found in 12 caves near Qumran in Israel’s Judaean Desert beginning in 1947. Qumran, located in the West Bank on the shores of the Dead Sea, has been under Israeli control since 1967 and modern excavations are still taking place there.
Many of the scrolls were discovered by Bedouin, who sold them on the antiquities market. In the 1950s, a series of excavations uncovered most of the rest.
Since their discovery more than 70 years ago, the scrolls have captured public imagination and this week, a free international conference, “The Dead Sea Scrolls in Recent Scholarship” is taking place online through May 20. It is sponsored by Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority in partnership with New York University, the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies, and NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.
The small fragments Taylor was working with have been housed, basically untouched, in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library since 1997.
According to the University of Manchester press release on the new discovery, they were unearthed during excavations in Qumran in the 1950s when they were given to University of Leeds leather expert Ronald Reed by the Jordanian government.
The fragments were removed from the Palestine Archaeological Museum’s “Scrollery”: By 1956, the bulk of the DSS collection was taken to East Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum (formerly the PAM), which was run by a nominal trusteeship by an international board through 1966.
Since these leather fragments didn’t appear to contain text, the idea was that Reed and his student John Poole could safely study the material and its originals without harming the word of God. Though thought to be blank, the collection was highly appreciated by leading DSS scholars who wrote in a 2007 paper, “The fragments in the Manchester archive have not been subjected to any substantial contamination by modern treatments as have been administered to many other Dead Sea Scroll fragments and in that respect alone the collection represents a unique set for comparison purposes.”
Still, the Reed Collection sat on a shelf from 1997 until recently, when King’s College London’s Taylor decided it deserved further scrutiny. She found gold.
“Frankly, since all these fragments were supposed to be blank and had even been cut into for leather studies. I also thought I might be imagining things. But then it seemed maybe other fragments could have very faded letters too,” said Taylor in the press release.
Using multispectral imaging, Taylor and her team photographed 51 “blank” fragments, each bigger than centimeter (0.4 inches), from both front and back. In all, four were discerned to hold legible Hebrew or Aramaic text, which was written in carbon-based ink. Other fragments were seen to hold hidden ruled guidelines for the scribe, and some had other broken remains of letters.
According to the press release, “The most substantial fragment has the remains of four lines of text with 15-16 letters, most of which are only partially preserved, but the word Shabbat (Sabbath) can be clearly read.” The researchers say it may be a fragment of the Book of Ezekiel (46:1-3), but further study is needed.
More than the naked eye can see
In 2018, Israeli researcher Oren Ableman had a similar eureka moment. Previously unseen Dead Sea Scroll fragments, which had been stored in cigar boxes since archaeologists unearthed them in the 1950s, were identified using an infrared microscope connected to a computer.
Calling the cigar boxes “the Tupperware containers for archaeologists of the 1950s,” Ableman told The Times of Israel at the time of the discovery that he was working on some 82 fragments from Qumran Cave 11, about 12 of which seemed to hold text. He estimated there were some 20 boxes of material from the cave that had yet to be sorted.
Likewise, in 2017, multispectral imaging was key in revealing “hidden” text on pottery sherds containing First Temple Hebrew from almost 3,000 years ago.
In that case, a corpus of 91 ink-on-clay shards (or ostraca) written on the eve of the Kingdom of Judah’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar was unearthed at Tel Arad, west of the Dead Sea, in the 1960s. The shards were found together on the floor of a single room and were considered a remarkable find.
What legible writing was discerned on the sherds was thoroughly deciphered by top scholars decades ago.
For the past 50 years, these sherds have been prominently displayed in the Israel Museum. Further text was revealed only after a team of applied mathematicians, archaeologists and physicists from Tel Aviv University — co-directed by archaeology Prof. Israel Finkelstein and physics Prof. Eli Piasetzky — developed a new, user-friendly multispectral imaging technique using a household digital camera. They’ve since used their technique for further studies.
Analysis of the Manchester Dead Sea Scroll fragments is the basis of a forthcoming publication, the result of a Leverhulme-funded study held at King’s College London, which was a collaboration between Taylor; Professor Marcello Fidanzio, who sits on the Faculty of Theology of Lugano; and Dr. Dennis Mizzi of the University of Malta, and is part of the Network for the Study of Dispersed Qumran Cave Artefacts and Archival Sources (DQCAAS).
“With new techniques for revealing ancient texts now available, I felt we had to know if these letters could be exposed. There are only a few on each fragment, but they are like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you find under a sofa,” said Taylor.