Could studying ancient ink help shed new light on the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The study of manuscripts offers scholars a treasure trove of information hidden in plain sight, complementing those presented by the texts themselves

Sections of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls are seen on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 14, 2008. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Sections of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls are seen on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 14, 2008.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Could studying the ink used by scribes 2,000 years ago to pen the Dead Sea Scrolls help scholars shed light on the many mysteries still surrounding them?
According to Ira Rabin, senior scientist at the Federal Institute of Material Research and Testing (BAM) in Berlin and the Center for the Studies of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) in Hamburg, the answer is a resounding yes.
The ancient Jewish sages, of blessed memory, were very well aware of the importance of ink in Jewish practice.
“As it was taught, Rabbi Meir said: When I was with Rabbi Yishmael, I used to put iron sulfate into the ink [with which I wrote Torah scrolls], and he did not say anything to me. When I came with Rabbi Akiva, he prohibited me so,” reads a passage of Talmud in the Tractate of Eruvim (13a, William Edison Edition translation via
Several passages in the Bible mention the action or the need of writing something down. From those passages, the question of the sages became what constitutes writing. Beginning at the time of the Mishna, the rabbis discussed the issue from several perspectives. Writing was an activity prohibited on Shabbat, which therefore required a precise understanding of the characteristics of a kosher Torah scroll (fit for use for a public reading in the synagogue), as well as of other objects, such as tefillin and megillah scrolls. The ingredients that could be employed to produce inks were also mentioned. A millennium later, the Rambam (Maimonides) systematically covered these issues in his Mishneh Torah.
Today, the study of manuscripts offers scholars a treasure trove of knowledge hidden in plain sight, complementing information presented by the texts themselves, Rabin told The Jerusalem Post after a workshop devoted to identifying and investigating historical ink types held at the National Library of Israel on Tuesday.
“The materiality of a manuscript is part of the manuscript itself, and it offers a lot of information about the time, place, use and technological development of when it was created,” she said.
While the study of inks has been important in conservation for quite a while, especially because of the corrosive nature of certain types of ink, the development of ink studies as an archaeological discipline is very recent, Rabin said.
“It has been developing basically in the past 10 years,” she said.
At the workshop, Rabin said the center where she works in Germany focuses on bridging the gap between the humanities, natural sciences and technology by assisting paleontologists, archaeologists and other scholars with their needs.
Much can be discovered by analyzing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabin said, which is one of her areas of expertise. In her studies, she has focused on the parchment the manuscripts were written on.
The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of dozens of manuscripts dating back to a period between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE that were uncovered in 11 caves near the Dead Sea. The scrolls include the earliest known copies of parts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as other religious writings. They are currently kept at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and other museums.
“The ink of the Dead Sea Scrolls has not been properly studied yet, and I hope that the Israel Antiquities Authority will allow it soon,” Rabin said.
Some of the manuscripts were analyzed in the 1990s, including Genesis Apocryphon, she said. It was almost completely destroyed by the corrosiveness of the ink used, something very unusual because corrosive types of inks appeared only much later in the Middle Ages.
“Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in carbon ink, the most ancient ink on earth, in use since at least 2,000 BCE and up until today,” Rabin said, adding that carbon ink is created through a dispersion of carbon particles in a binder and is not corrosive.
“We do not know, however, if other materials, and especially metals, were mixed in the ink as well in some of the manuscripts,” she told the Post.
One of the questions that intrigues scholars in the field is why at some point, after using a certain type of ink for centuries if not millennia, scribes started to use other materials for ink. This happened, for example, around the 3rd century BCE.
“I personally connect this event with the figure of Alexander the Great, who assembled a great empire and created a need for more ink,” Rabin said. “Since carbon ink was expensive, people started to adulterate it with other substances, making similar ink but not as expensive.”
“I do think it is very important to further study the ink of the manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls because of the knowledge the materiality of the manuscripts can give us, and because I hope very much to be able to produce a three-dimensional or four-dimensional socio-geographic map of the times and the places where people were using different inks, from the 4th century BCE to the 6th-7th century CE,” Rabin said.