Meet the only person in the world who can touch the Dead Sea Scrolls

Hidden in the caves of the Judean Desert for over 2,000 years, the artifacts include some of the most ancient manuscripts of the Bible, as well as other religious texts.

Israel Antiquities Authority conservator of the Dead Sea Scrolls Tanya Bitler with one of the best preserved scrolls. (photo credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)
Israel Antiquities Authority conservator of the Dead Sea Scrolls Tanya Bitler with one of the best preserved scrolls.
(photo credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)
Few people are familiar with the name of Tanya Bitler, a 63-year-old conservator at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who moved to Israel from Russia at the end of 1990. However, her hands have been featured in media all over the planet for a unique reason: she is currently the only person in the world who can touch and handle the legendary Dead Sea Scrolls and her fingers wrapped in gloves delicately holding or pointing out to a fragment regularly appear in the images that are disseminated to the public when new findings emerge.
Since their discovery in the 1940s and 1950s, the scrolls – which include some 25,000 fragments – have been an object of fascination for thousands of scholars and millions of people in Israel and all over the world.
Hidden in the caves of the Judean Desert for over 2,000 years, the artifacts include some of the most ancient manuscripts of the Bible, as well as other religious texts that were not accepted in the canon. The IAA is the entity which was placed in charge of them on behalf of the state of Israel.
For decades however, the scrolls experienced terrible deterioration: the different climate conditions of their new Jerusalem home and a succession of well-intentioned but badly executed attempts of scholars and conservators to preserve them caused very severe damage.
In 1991, the IAA began to tackle the issue of the preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which resulted in establishing a unit and a laboratory devoted to their wellbeing.
As she explained to The Jerusalem Post, Bitler was one of the four people hired to work as a conservator on the project in 1992, thanks to her background in history and archaeology as well as a degree in the field and ten years working as curator at the Architectural and Ethnographic Museum Khokhlovka in the Russian city of Perm.
“We began our work by looking at the material, to familiarize with our collection,” she explained. “Moreover, we started carrying out several tests on modern parchments to understand how we could intervene to protect the scrolls, as well as studying the issue in a theoretical way. Finally we invited the experts from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, which was the first entity to develop an expertise on conservation for this type of material, employing biologists, chemists and so on. They came to our lab to study our problems and develop a methodology for us to work on them.”
Even more than research, the first goal of the IAA initiative was preservation. In the previous decades, fragments of scrolls thought to be fitting together had been attached using Scotch tape, other forms of glue were also employed on the manuscripts for several purposes, while the conservators thought the best way to protect the artifacts was to place them between two glass plates whose pressure ended up causing the parchments to become darker and their edges to gelatinize.
After the first years were devoted to study, Bitler and the other conservators started to delicately treat the scrolls, taking them out of the glass plates, unless the damage had made it impossible, to store them in more suitable cardboard plates, and removing the glue and the tape.
“It is a very slow and time-consuming process, also because the scrolls require constant monitoring and maintenance. We have been able to treat about half of our collection,” she told the Post.
The lab’s principle is to only carry out interventions that do not risk causing further damage and that can be reversed, in case the future brings new technological developments that can help the scrolls in a more effective way.
Moreover, to avoid harm by inexperienced hands, the conservators at the IAA Dead Sea Scroll Unit, which currently sits on the campus of the Israel Museum, are the only people authorized to touch and handle them.
In the meantime, new projects have also been undertaken.
Among others, in the past ten years a large digitization initiative has been carried out, utilizing high-resolution multi-spectral imaging. All fragments had to be removed from the vault where they are normally kept and manually placed in the special equipment to photograph them at the highest resolution possible and in various wavelengths, a task that required the hands of Bitler and her colleagues.
Moreover, many new avenues of research on the scrolls have progressively opened through the intersection of archaeology and hard sciences. For instance, a group of researchers analyzed the DNA of the animal skins used to produce the parchments of some scrolls, in a multi-year initiative whose first results were announced at the beginning of this month. One more time, the experts who took care of collecting the actual material from the scrolls for the scientists involved were the IAA conservators.
Even when some scrolls are occasionally loaned to museums around the world, the conservators are the ones who take care of all aspects of the process of preparing them. No one else lays their hands on the artifacts.
In the past few months though, three conservators who for over a quarter of century took care of these delicate activities retired, leaving Bitler as the only one left in the unit, at least for the time being.
New conservators are currently being trained, but the expert explained to the Post that it will take at least two years of hard work for them to be somewhat proficient in some aspects of the activity and five years to be completely ready to take over.
“In the meantime, I still have a few years of work ahead of me,” she said.
Even after 28 years, Bitler highlighted that working with the scrolls for her still feels very special.
“Of course I’m still excited. I’m very happy to work in the lab and I feel a huge responsibility,” she concluded. “Every fragment is different from the other, every one has different characteristics and has suffered from different problems. Dealing with each of them always feels unique.”