The secret to miraculous preservation of a Dead Sea Scroll could be salt coating

Enlarge / Partial view of the Dead Sea Temple Scroll, one of the longest biblical texts found since the 1940s.Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

A team of MIT scientists studied a fragment of one of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and found the parchment has an unusual coating of sulfate salts. This may be one reason the scrolls were so well-preserved, but it also means the delicate parchments might be more vulnerable to small shifts in humidity than originally thought. The researchers described their work in a recent paper in Science Advances, noting that better understanding of the ancient techniques used to make parchment could also prove useful for spotting Dead Sea Scroll forgeries.

These ancient Hebrew texts—roughly 900 full and partial scrolls in all, stored in clay jars—were first discovered scattered in various caves near what was once the settlement of Qumran, just north of the Dead Sea, by Bedouin shepherds in 1946-1947. Qumran was destroyed by the Romans, circa 73 CE, and historians believe the scrolls were hidden in the caves by a sect called the Essenes to protect them from being destroyed. The natural limestone and conditions within the caves helped preserve the scrolls for millennia; they date back to between the third century BC and the first century CE.

Co-author Admir Masic, now at MIT, has a longstanding interest in the parchment used for the Dead Sea Scrolls (along with other ancient materials) dating back to his graduate studies in Italy. The scrolls have shown signs of degradation since they were first discovered and moved from the caves into museums, probably arising from early scholarly efforts to soften them up to make them easier to unroll. Scientists like Masic are keen to learn more about them in hopes of slowing or stopping that degradation.

"We are talking about ancient, two-thousand-year-old documents that cover a fantastic period where Christianity was born," he said. "That means they are extremely valuable from a historical point of view. We need to think of ways to preserve them."

The Temple Scroll is the longest and most well-preserved of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The text appears to cover some version of material found in the Biblical books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, including plans for a Jewish temple, and rules regarding temple practices and sacrificial offerings. Parchment is typically made from animal skins, with the hair and fatty residues removed via enzymatic or similar treatments in ancient times. Then the skins were scraped clean and stretched across a frame to dry.

The Temple Scroll is unusual because the text appears on the flesh side of the parchment, rather than the hair side. From a materials standpoint, the Temple Scroll boasts a whiter surface than the other scrolls, and it is unusually thin—just 1/250th of an inch (one-tenth of a millimeter) thick. Scholars have speculated that the parchment may have been split into two layers while being prepared. And the scroll has not been treated by preservationists, so its original composition is intact.

  • Light microscopy of the Temple Scroll, showing its layered structure from the macro scale to the micro scale. Schuetz et al./Sci. Adv.
  • X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopic images of the Temple Scroll. Schuetz et al./Sci. Adv.
  • SEM images, ternary diagrams, and phase maps for the text and reverse sides of the Temple Scroll. Schuetz et al./Sci. Adv.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls on display in the shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2008. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
  • MIT's Admir Masic uses an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to analyze ancient materials in Italy. Lillie Pacquette/MIT

Naturally, the Temple Scroll drew Masic's attention, and he was thrilled to receive permission to study a small fragment.

"It's really rare to find an entire scroll," said Masic. "In general, these manuscripts arrived to us as tiny fragments." He and several graduate students anRead More – Source