Dead Sea Scrolls Shed Light on a Lost Ancient Parchment-Making Technology
Thu, April 22, 2021

Dead Sea Scrolls Shed Light on a Lost Ancient Parchment-Making Technology

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written between 150 BC and 70 AD, but archaeologists are not sure where they originated. / Photo by: Viparat Kluengsuwanchai via 123rf

 

In 1947, Bedouin teenagers were tending their goats and sheep near the ancient settlement of Qumran located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea when they chanced upon several ancient scrolls that were placed inside several large clay jars. Not knowing that these were an astonishing archeological find, they sold the scrolls to a nearby dealer. The antiquities dealer bought the cache, which eventually ended in the hands of various scholars.

After discovering that the scrolls were more than 2,000 years old, the archaeologists immediately looked for the teenagers. The teens brought them to the cave where they found the scrolls. The researchers then unearthed tens of thousands of additional scroll fragments from 10 nearby caves. All in all, they discovered between 800 and 900 manuscripts. The researchers eventually named them the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written between 150 BC and 70 AD, but archaeologists are not sure where they originated. It was believed that the scrolls were the work of the Jewish population that inhabited Qumran until Roman troops destroyed the settlement. One of the reasons why they are interesting is that they contain significant religious literature, which consists of two types of manuscripts: “biblical” and “non-biblical.”

Reports showed that about 230 manuscripts are referred to as “biblical scrolls” while the remaining are Jewish religious writings from the Second Temple period. While the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Hebrew, the researchers also discovered texts in Aramaic. However, the most interesting and celebrated part is the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which remained intact for over 2,000 years ago, have survived centuries of natural wear and human contact. 

Uncovering an Ancient Production Technology

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has become an extremely important archaeological find because they are the earliest manuscripts of biblical texts dated from the ninth century after Christ—copies that were long lost. They have also provided enormous light for Bible translators. But the most fascinating and interesting part is how these scrolls managed to stay in an impressive condition for thousands of years.

The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study to know why. They focused on what they called the Temple Scroll, the largest and best-preserved scrolls among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, reported that it is almost 25 feet long and has the clearest, whitest writing surface of all the scrolls.

The Temple Scroll was investigated using a variety of specialized tools developed by researchers to map its detailed chemical composition. The researchers performed large-area, submicron-scale, non-invasive characterization of the fragment, which allowed them to maintain them under more environmentally friendly conditions. Co-author James C. Weaver from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University stated that a fragment provided them an opportunity to look deeply into the original composition of the Temple Scroll. It revealed some elements spread across the surface of the parchment that is at completely unexpectedly high concentrations, including sulfur, sodium, and calcium. 

 

Reports showed that about 230 manuscripts are referred to as “biblical scrolls” while the remaining are Jewish religious writings from the Second Temple period. / Photo by: serezniy via 123rf

 

While it is not yet clear where the unusual combination of salts on the Temple Scroll's surface came from, the researchers discovered that the scrolls were produced with an ancient form of parchment-making technology. According to Fast Company, the world's leading progressive business media brand with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, leadership, and design, this advanced preservation method was the major reason why the manuscripts have survived in such remarkable condition. The rare combination of the elements is also found to be responsible for the manuscript’s bright, white surface and notable durability.

Also, it was discovered that the writing surface is largely composed of sulfate salts, including glauberite, gypsum, and thenardite. The discovery of the ancient technology not only sheds light on just how this unique parchment was made but can also help in revealing new approaches to preserving sensitive historical documents in the modern age. At the same time, this could help the researchers in understanding the culture and society of that time and place, which played a central role in the history of both Judaism and Christianity. 

Ultimately, this unique ancient technology can help in understanding the parchment production and its chemistry that could eventually identify forgeries of supposedly ancient writings.

New Questions Over the Scrolls’ Origins

Typically, parchments were usually made from animal skin that had been cleaned and scoured of all hair and fat. During the process, the materials were stretched and dried and sometimes rubbed with salt too. But the method was different for the Dead Sea Scrolls as the parchments were coated with various salts before any words were written on them. 

The researchers discovered that the composition of this special coating does not match water from the Dead Sea. This suggested that it must have come from somewhere else, which they still haven’t figured out. "I am not the least surprised to learn that a part of the scrolls was not prepared in the Dead Sea region. It would be naive to assume that they were all prepared there,” Bible scholar Jonathan Ben-Dov, who was not involved in this research, said. 

According to The Guardian, an online British site, Professor Timothy Lim from the University of Edinburgh believes that the Dead Sea Scrolls did not come from the region. The researchers suggested that the primary treatment for them is consistent with the “western” way of parchment preparation. 

Nonetheless, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provided new opportunities for researchers to understand more of the past. The fascinating technology that made these scrolls can help in developing more robust and reliable techniques for evaluating authenticity and forgery in ancient manuscripts.