Since their discovery between 1946 and 1956, archeologists and historians have pored over the Dead Sea Scrolls in a bid to decipher their meaning and further understand the Jewish people.
Hidden in 12 caves 2,000 years ago in Wadi Qumran near the Dead Sea – dating to the Second Temple period – some of the scrolls and scroll fragments have been difficult to read. But this all changed recently after advanced imaging technology originally developed for NASA was brought in to help unravel the mystery behind those unreadable fragments.
On Tuesday, the Antiquities Authority revealed a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls from Cave 11.
“We can tell, based on the handwriting, that this fragment doesn’t come from the two scrolls originally found in the cave,” Oren Ableman, a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls working for the Antiquities Authority and a PhD student at the Hebrew University, told The Jerusalem Post
during a viewing of the scrolls at the Israel Museum on Wednesday.
“The fragment contains letters written in the ancient Hebrew script known as Paleo-Hebrew.... This fragment cannot be attributed to any one of the known manuscripts,” he explained. “This raises the possibility that it belonged to a still unknown manuscript.”
Abelman said that they had started looking at these fragments under a microscope, “but we couldn’t see anything on it with the naked eye. We then started checking the fragments using multispectral imaging,” which revealed that some of the fragments came from different scrolls already known.
Abelman showed journalists a small box filled with fragments that he will be working on for some time.
“We don’t know yet where these fragments are from, but we’ll hopefully find out soon,” he told the Post excitedly.
“In this chunk that hasn’t been checked yet, there is a possibility [to find more pieces of what could be the ‘missing’ scroll]. This is the first sign of something else that might show up.”
Another fragment presented has been identified as belonging to the Great Psalms Scroll. The new fragment preserves part of the beginning of Psalm 147:1.
“The end of the same verse is preserved in a large fragment,” Abelman added.
“The new fragment actually completes a missing phrase.
The manuscript was slightly shorter than the Hebrew text commonly used nowadays.”
A third fragment belonging to the Temple Scroll – a text dealing with directions for conducting the services in the Temple – was also found.
“Among academics, there is a debate if there are two or three copies of the Temple Scroll found in Cave 11 near Qumran,” a representative from the project said.
“The identification of the new fragment strengthens the theory that a manuscript given the number 11Q21 is indeed a third copy of this text from Cave 11.”
Journalists were then taken to the imaging room and were given a demonstration of how the multispectral imaging works.
Twenty-eight types of light exposures are used to show the different elements in the scrolls, allowing for a “new reading of the text and, more important than that, conservation and preservation [aspects] of the scrolls,” explained photographer Shay Halevi, who has taken on the arduous task of picturing the fragments and scrolls. He said the multispectral imaging “photographs the fragment on both sides, and we use these images for scientific and conservational purposes.”
The Post watched with fascination as each flash of colored light – ranging from green to blue, red and orange – was able to reveal letters and words that would otherwise be unreadable on “darkened” and more aged fragments of the scrolls.