Friday, January 22, 2010

Conserving the Dead Sea Scrolls

From Haaretz:

For the past two and a half months, Tania Treiger, a conservator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, has been pouring over a piece of parchment about 20 centimeters square. It began with a microscopic examination of the fragment to gauge its condition, and continued with the placement of special paper over the writing to very slowly remove the circa 1970s adhesive tape.

Treiger, whose tools include Q-tips, tweezers and lots of patience, is one of four "guardians" of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These four women, all from the former Soviet Union, are the only people in the world permitted to touch the scrolls.

The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among the most important archaeological finds in the world, were discovered in the mid-1940s in the Dead Sea area, and have been making headlines ever since. This week, the Hebrew daily Maariv reported that the IAA had decided to stop sending the scrolls abroad to exhibitions for fear of legal complications, after the Jordanian government demanded that Israel return scrolls to Jordan. In 1967 the Jordanians tried to remove the scrolls from the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem to Jordan, but Israel took East Jerusalem before that could happen and found the scrolls in the museum storerooms.


The scrolls, dating from about 300 BCE to 70 CE, survived amazingly well in the dry conditions of the caves of Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The first scroll scholars, an international consortium of eight researchers, tried to piece together the fragments as best they could. "They were geniuses who did amazing work, but they were not aware of the physical needs of the material," Shor says.

Using adhesive tape, they stuck together what they believed to be related fragments and laid them between two pieces of glass. The scholars created a total of 1276 such plates. But adhesive tape, an amazing invention in the 1950s, became a conservation catastrophe for the scrolls. The chemicals in the adhesive ate into the organic material, stained it and wiped out letters. Later scholars also did damage. In the 1970s, they began to piece together fragments using rice paper and plastic material, which caused additional damage. Luckily, this process was halted and most of the fragments remained within the glass plates.


The digitalizing of the scrolls, under preparation for three years, is to begin in about six months. The project, whose cost is estimated at more than $5 million, will use special photographic techniques, including infrared and full-spectrum photography, which are also expected to reveal hidden letters. The intent of the project, which will take five years, is to place everything on the Internet so scholars around the world can take part in the greatest puzzle of all - piecing together tens of thousands of fragments of some 900 different compositions.

The full article is here. The Hebrew version has two photographs.

HT: Joe Lauer



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