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Where Oh Where Were The Dead Sea Scrolls Written?

A Dead Sea Scroll text. Credit: Newscom.

In the late 1940s and early 50s, nearly 1000 manuscripts were found in caves along the banks of the Dead Sea at a site called Khirbet Qumran. The so-called Dead Sea Scroll texts, which include the oldest known versions of the Hebrew Bible as well as other important ancient writings, have long provided fodder for all sorts of academic research and debate.

One serious point of contention is whether the manuscripts were all written at Khirbet Qumran, or whether the caves were simply a library–a grotto-like repository.

Figuring out an answer to this question with science but without harming the precious documents is a tall order, but one that may be filled using a new technique developed by a team at the Technical University in Berlin, led by Ioanna Mantouvalou.

It turns out that the Dead Sea Scroll documents were penned on a real potpourri of materials, including copper, papyrus (a plant-based paper) and parchment (animal skin). Mantouvalou and her colleagues decided to focus on the provenance of the parchment-based writings because these form the majority of the Dead Sea Scroll collection.

To make parchment from animal skin, the skin is first soaked in water for a very long time. Besides the H2O, water often has a lot of different ions and molecules floating around in it, including bromine and chlorine. It turns out that the bromine-to-chlorine ratio in water varies in different geographical regions. Thus this ratio could be used as a sort of fingerprint for the water’s point of origin.

Mantouvalou and her team wondered whether they could measure bromine-to-chlorine ratios leftover in the Dead Sea Scroll parchments from when the animal skin was being soaked in water. They think that this ratio could be a geographical pointer to the parchments’ origin(s). (This assumes, of course, that the texts were penned near where the parchment writing pads were produced.)

Step one–figuring out exactly how to measure the ratio of bromine-to-chlorine non-invasively in Dead Sea Scroll parchments–is solved… The team developed a way to do this with a portable X-ray spectrometer, and they recently published the work in Analytical Chemistry.

Step two–studying many different Dead Sea Scroll parchments to figure out where they were made–is also completed, but not yet published. Mantouvalou did tell me that the 25 samples they studied could be separated in to four groups… but she didn’t divulge more than that because she’s waiting to get the data accepted and published in an academic journal.

So. Stay tuned… I’ll write about this again when the second paper is published!

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