Science of the Scrolls

Risa Levitt Kohn

How far-reaching technologies help researchers unshroud the mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Long shrouded in mystery, the precise meaning and origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls elude us still. Science and technology are light years ahead of where they were when the first scrolls were discovered in 1947, and new research methods, tools, and technologies have deepened our understanding of the scrolls by unlocking more and more information. Even so, key questions remain unanswered: Who wrote the scrolls? When were they written?Where were they writtenWhich fragments belong together? And, perhaps most pressing, can we halt their relentless decomposition? Herewith, a tour through some of science’s best tools for investigating these questions.

A Good Year for Dating

As fortune would have it, a scientist named Willard Libby developed the carbon-14 dating method in 1949—just two years after the first scrolls were discovered. This method, also called radiocarbon dating, can accurately date biological matter up to 60,000 years old. In 1960, Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery.

Thanks to carbon-14, we’ve been able to date the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which are made from goat skin. The element carbon is the building block that makes life possible. There are several types, or isotopes, of carbon. C-12 is stable, but C-14 is radioactive and decays slowly, becoming nitrogen-14 over time. As long as an organism is alive and well, the proportion of C-12 to C-14 remains stable. However, as soon as an organism dies—for example, the goat whose skin was used to make parchment for the Dead Sea Scrolls—the ratio of C-12 to C-14 begins to change at a constant, measurable rate.

C-14 has a half-life of about 5,730 years, which means that after 5,730 years have passed, half of the C-14 atoms have decayed to nitrogen-14. By looking at the ratio of C-12 to C-14 in a sample and comparing it to the ratio in a living organism, it is possible to determine the age of a formerly living thing fairly precisely. (This technique is also used with other radioisotopes, including potassium-40 and rranium-235.)

Unfortunately, the first scientists using this technology had much less sensitive machines than those in use today, and large amounts of material were required to date items—several grams, in fact. In order to date a scroll, scientists would virtually have had to destroy it. The first attempts to date the scrolls relied on another technique: paleography—the study and analysis of ancient writing. By analyzing and comparing the scrolls—letter to letter, brush stroke to brush stroke—to other dated documents, researchers were able to gauge dates quite accurately.

Soil Fingerprints

Determining who wrote the scrolls is a key question for scholars. Surprisingly, scientists can use soil analysis to point us toward an answer. Because no two soils are alike, dirt separated by even a few miles is distinguishable. The scrolls were found in clay jars and other pottery vessels, and the clay used to make the containers can guide us to where the jars were made, possibly pointing to where the scrolls were written.

To examine soil, scientists expose small samples to a process of nuclear activation, which measures its levels of radiation. Nuclear activation outlines the soil’s chemical composition, resulting in a “fingerprint” to which researchers may match other soils.

Scientists tested the soil composition from the jars in which the scrolls were found against soil samples in and around Jerusalem, and several other locations, including Qumran, an archaeological site near where the scrolls were found. Test results show that most of the jars were made locally in Qumran and four other nearby sites.
More recently, soil research has figured prominently in the discovery of a latrine outside Qumran, which, according to researchers, may indicate that the Qumran community strictly followed the sanitary practices mentioned in Deuteronomy and in the scrolls.

The Genius of Genes

The characters in CSI: Miami are not the only experts to use DNA analysis. DNA testing helps scientists study the scrolls in several ways. Most were written on parchment made from goat hide, and all biomaterial, living or dead, contains DNA—the blueprint for life. Each strand of DNA holds exactly the same information, but no two humans’ (or plants’ or animals’) strands of DNA are exactly alike. With DNA testing and matching, scientists can now use DNA from the many fragments of parchment to help with the challenging task of piecing together individual scrolls. Recently, six of seven previously unidentified fragments were found to belong to the Temple Scroll.

But genetic testing can help gather evidence to solve other enigmas too—DNA from the scrolls may help point to where they were written. How? Scientists may be able to match a scroll’s DNA to the bones of a goat buried at Qumran or, as some scholars would have it, in Jerusalem.

Scientists can also identify family lines through DNA. Innovations abound. Recently, researchers began using another kind of DNA, breaking down the genetic code in pollen from clothing found at Qumran. This reveals clues as to which plants flourished at that time. And humble head lice—which have been found attached to ancient combs in Qumran—may hold answers as well. If researchers can extract human DNA from the blood in one louse, that DNA could help identify present-day relatives of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ scribes. Imagine the thrill of locating a scribe’s direct descendants or family group.

Seeing the Scrolls in a New Light

Written some 2,000 years ago, some of the scrolls have since deteriorated significantly. Layers of grime, and disintegration from the environment and poor handling make some scrolls difficult to decipher. How then are the words of the most fragile scrolls to be read and analyzed?

Once again, modern technology steps in; infrared light and photography can retrieve lost words. Infrared light—which is beyond the visible spectrum—turns out to have the perfect wavelength to recapture missing text. The way it works is simple: the space around the text absorbs infrared light, but the text itself—and places where text once existed—bounce light back. In this way, researchers can see and photograph words that have vanished over time.

While it’s inevitable that the scrolls will continue to deteriorate, their caretakers are making every effort to preserve them. Every scroll fragment has been digitally photographed, and every piece is protected from light and humidity damage. As research progresses on the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars will continue to look to technology for innovative tools and methods to preserve and study these valuable documents. Ironically, it is modern technology that is opening a window onto the ancient world.