The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts discovered between 1947 and 1956 at Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank. The texts are of great historical, religious and linguistic significance because they include the earliest known surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible canon, along with extra-biblical manuscripts which preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism.
The texts are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabataean, mostly on parchment but with some written on papyrus and bronze. The manuscripts have been dated to various ranges between 408 BCE and 318 CE. The scrolls have traditionally been identified with the Essenes, although some recent interpretations have challenged this association and argue that the scrolls were penned by priests in Jerusalem
The scrolls were written on parchment made of processed animal hide known as vellum, papyrus, and sheets of bronze. For those scrolls written on animal hides, scholars with the Israeli Antiquities Authority believe that there may be a hierarchy in the religious importance of the texts based on which type of animal was used to create the hide. Scrolls written on goat and calf hides are considered by scholars to be more significant in nature, while those written on gazelle or ibex are considered to be less religiously significant in nature.
Bedouin shepherds Muhammed Edh-Dhib, Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa discovered the caves containing the scrolls between November 1946 and February 1947. The shepherds discovered 7 scrolls housed in jars in a cave at what is now known as the Qumran site.
The scrolls caught the attention of Dr. John C. Trever, of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), who compared the script in the scrolls to that of The Nash Papyrus, the oldest biblical manuscript then known, and found similarities between them. In March the 1948 Arab-Israeli War prompted the move of some of scrolls to Beirut, Lebanon for safekeeping. On 11 April 1948, Miller Burrows, head of the ASOR, announced the discovery of the scrolls in a general press release.
The Dead Sea Scrolls that were found were originally preserved by the dry, arid, and low humidity conditions present within the Qumran area adjoining the Dead Sea. In addition, the lack of the use of tanning materials on the parchment of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the very low airflow in the Qumran caves also contributed significantly to their preservation. Some of the scrolls were found stored in clay jars within the Qumran caves, further helping to preserve them from deterioration.
Handling and Deterioration
The original handling of the scrolls by archaeologists and scholars was done inappropriately, and, along with their storage in an uncontrolled environment, they began a process of rapid deterioration than what they had experienced at Qumran. The Government of Jordan had recognized the urgency of protecting the scrolls from deterioration and the presence of the deterioration among the scrolls. However, the government did not have adequate funds to purchase all the scrolls for their protection and agreed to have foreign institutions purchase the scrolls and have them held at their museum in Jerusalem until they could be “adequately studied”.
In early 1953, they were moved to the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem and consequently suffered more deterioration and damage. The museum had left most of the fragments and scrolls lying between window glass, trapping the moisture in with them, causing an acceleration in the deterioration process. During the 1956 Arab-Israeli War, the scrolls collection of the Palestinian Archaeological Museum was stored in the vault of the Ottoman Bank in Amman, Jordan. The conditions caused mildew to develop on the scrolls and fragments, and some of the fragments were partially destroyed or made illegible by the glue and paper of the manila envelopes in which they were stored while in the vault.
Until the 1970s, the scrolls continued to deteriorate because of poor storage arrangements, exposure to different adhesives, and being trapped in moist environments. In the late 1960s, the deterioration was becoming a major concern with scholars and museum officials alike. Early attempts made by both the British and Israel Museums to remove the adhesive tape ended up exposing the parchment to an array of chemicals, darkening some of them significantly. In the 1970s and 1980s, other preservation attempts were made that included removing the glass plates and replacing them with cardboard; however, the fragments and scrolls continued to rapidly deteriorate during this time.
In 1991, the Israeli Antiquities Authority established a temperature controlled laboratory for the storage and preservation of the scrolls. The actions and preservation methods of Rockefeller Museum staff were concentrated on the removal of tape, oils, metals, salt, and other contaminants. The fragments and scrolls are preserved using acid-free cardboard and stored in solander boxes in the climate-controlled storage area.
If you’d like to look at the scriolls yourself, you can view them online courtesy of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem: http://dss.collections.imj.org.il
Another website: The Shrine of the Book – http://www.english.imjnet.org.il/page_899?c0=14389&bsp=14162