What is the future of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls?

The new head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Dead Sea Scrolls Unit, archaeologist Joe Uziel, spoke to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about his vision for his tenure

THE DEAD Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum. Once reopened, national sites and museums in closed areas will be limited to a specific number of people or family units (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE DEAD Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum. Once reopened, national sites and museums in closed areas will be limited to a specific number of people or family units
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Almost 30 years have passed since the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to set up a laboratory and a climate-control room devoted to the conservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The past decade has witnessed the flourishing of a variety of projects to uncover the secrets of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts as well as to preserve them and make them accessible to the public, under a dedicated Dead Sea Scrolls Unit established in 2010.
At the helm of the facility since its foundation was archaeologist Pnina Shor, who supervised initiatives such as the digitization of the scrolls and different streams of comprehensive research to investigate their material elements. Now, the unit turns page again: Shor retired in February and the new head of the unit, archaeologist Joe Uziel, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his vision for his tenure, the ongoing efforts of the unit and the effects of the coronavirus crisis that broke out just after he started his position.
“Joining a unit that encompasses the entire spectrum of work regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls, including research, conservation and outreach is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity,” he said.
Before joining the unit, Uziel was an archaeologist specialized in the Bronze and Iron Age – much earlier than the period the scrolls date back to and he carried out several prominent excavations in Jerusalem, including at the City of David and the Western Wall.
Dr. Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority sits on the steps of the theater-shaped building uncovered by the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Credit: Yaniv Berman, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)Dr. Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority sits on the steps of the theater-shaped building uncovered by the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Credit: Yaniv Berman, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
 “I’m not a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar or specialist, but I think that my experience in the field is going to be important in offering the perspective of an archaeologist, because the scrolls are an archaeological finding,” he explained. “Moreover, one of the things that I have focused a lot in my work in Jerusalem is advancing the methodologies in the field and I believe that this represents the next step for new cutting edge research to be done here at the unit as well: we are dealing with the most important archaeological finding in Israel in the 20th century, it deserves the best methods, whether is in research, conservation or documentation.”
Indeed, the dilemma of whether to preserve the scrolls for future generations or to advance research is one of the fundamental questions that the staff of the unit faces on a daily basis, considering how some of the most interesting research avenues, such as carbon dating or DNA analysis, involve some damage of the material.
“For example, we ask ourselves if today is the time to conduct radio-carbon analysis on the scrolls, when perhaps in one, three or five years, the techniques might be much more developed and less invasive,” Uziel pointed out.
Asked whether there is a specific project or goal that he intends to pursue as the head of the unit, the researcher explained that he considers it very important to expand outreach to the public and increase their awareness on the entire scope of the collection and what it represents.
“I myself was not entirely aware of the extensiveness of this collection, which includes some 25,000 fragments for several hundred manuscripts, not only the biblical ones, but also the non-biblical ones that tell us a lot about the lives of the community living in those caves in Qumran thousands of years ago,” he said.
“I wish for the public to realize how fragile they are and also how amazing it is that after 2,000 years, these objects survive and anyone who can read Hebrew are able to read the texts,” he added.
The coronavirus outbreak has affected the work of the unit quite a bit, he explained with several conferences canceled and the whole staff forced at home during the lockdown with the sole exception of the curator responsible for the physical well-being of the scrolls.
“We have had to reassess our goals for 2020,” Uziel explained. “We hope that 2021 will be a safer and a better year.
“I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity and for the team I get to work with,” he concluded. “I also realize the great responsibility is upon me.”