Dead Sea Scrolls – Scientists In Berlin Criticize Israeli Cultural Authorities For Treatment Of Sacred Documents
Last week, a peer-reviewed journal called the Restaurator published a controversial article about the Dead Sea Scrolls written by two Berlin-based scientists who charge that these sacred documents are not receiving proper care from the Israeli cultural institutions responsible for their well-being.
The article’s abstract does not mince words:
“Examination of the properties of the scrolls proves that frequent travel, exhibitions and the associated handling induce collagen deterioration that is covered up by the absence of a proper monitoring program.”
“I want the scrolls to be protected,” says Ira Rabin, who co-authored the piece entitled “Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibitions Around The World: Reasons For Concern” with her colleague Oliver Hahn at the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing.
The 20-page document specifically criticizes the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, who hold responsibility for a majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both defend their treatment of the scrolls (detailed below).
But first, the criticisms. Rabin and Hahn argue in the Restaurator that:
1. The Dead Sea Scrolls are being exhibited far too much, and that the consequent travel and handling is seriously accelerating their degradation. The authors show that there’s been a substantial increase in international exhibitions in the past two decades.
2. No scientifically sophisticated system is yet in place to monitor the degradation state of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The authors argue that all exhibitions should be stopped until a rigorous analytical monitoring system is established and can prove that the frequent traveling is not unduly exacerbating the fragile state of these documents.
3. Current strategies to conserve the scrolls may, in some cases, be worsening their state. In particular the authors take issue with the reinforcement of the scrolls with Japanese tissue paper. This process requires the use of an adhesive called methyl cellulose.
Rabin and Hahn argue that use of the adhesive brings the scrolls in contact with unnecessary moisture. They say this wetness is causing collagen in the animal skin parchment to unravel irreversibly from its triple helix formation into an amorphous gelatin. They include an image of this gelatinization to make their point.
The article’s first author, Rabin, worked as a consultant at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) from 2005-2006. From multiple accounts, Rabin and the IAA did not part on congenial terms. In 2007, Rabin received a letter from the IAA’s lawyers (seen by Artful Science) threatening legal action if she presented work from her time at the IAA at a conference or in a publication, based on an employment contract she had once signed.
As such, the criticism in the current Restaurator article is based on publically available information, the authors’ research on Dead Sea Scrolls from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (some of which underwent conservation treatments at the IAA), and the authors’ research on a Dead Sea Scroll collection housed at the University of Manchester. The Manchester collection contains small fragments of the scrolls that don’t go on tour and are primarily used for research purposes, Rabin says.
In the past year, Rabin and Hahn have also published two scientific papers (here and here) on their Dead Sea Scroll research at Manchester. (They are developing an X-ray fluorescence technique to help resolve a long standing debate about where and how the scrolls were produced.)
And now the responses:
The Israel Museum’s press officer sent a short email noting that the organization’s curators and conservators “adopt the best available tools to ensure the safekeeping of these works” and “ascribe to the highest standards” but she did not provide any further explanation about the tools or the standards. She also noted that the scrolls’ condition is “assessed on an ongoing basis” and that they are only allowed to travel “when the Museum can be satisfied regarding the conditions for transport, handling, and display.” No specifics were given.
In a phone conversation, the IAA’s head scroll conservator, Pnina Shor, said that the IAA’s conservation strategies were developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress and the Getty Conservation Institute. She also defended the exhibitions. When the scrolls are on the road, Shor said the IAA ensures that “the environmental conditions in display cases are exactly the same as the conditions in the vault” except for the amount of illumination the scrolls get.
Museums spend a lot of effort evaluating what acceptable light levels are, given that light damage is a prime culprit in the destruction of many kinds of art and artifacts, from Van Gogh pigments to plastic sculptures.
Shor said that the IAA has set a maximum amount of illumination the scrolls can receive to 15,000 lux per year. “The scrolls are made of organic material [animal skin]. We know they deteriorate no matter what we do or do not do. It is part of our duty to both ensure the safety of our heritage and to share it with the public.”
She acknowledged that an analytical monitoring system that could systematically evaluate degradation was not yet in place. However she pointed out that the IAA is working on a high tech multispectral imaging system, with collaborator Greg Bearman who has developed similar systems for NASA’s jet propulsion lab.
Last year Bearman, Shor and their colleagues published two proof-of-principle articles (here and here) about how the monitoring system might work. The articles showed data for artificially-aged parchments, but not the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rabin and Hahn criticize the technique in the Restaurator article, saying that they don’t think it is going to work for the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Bearman told Artful Science in an email that Rabin and Hahn don’t fully understand the technique being developed and he added that his team has been collecting data on the scrolls for eight months. He also noted that experiments are ongoing this summer but he did not know when they would be publishing the results. He added that the team was also considering a whole battery of other analytical techniques, such as Raman spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy.
Presented with this rebuttal, Rabin responded that she’ll need to see a peer-reviewed article that shows a monitoring technique that works on the Dead Sea Scrolls before she’ll be convinced. She added that even if a fully functioning monitoring system is on the horizon, the scrolls should not be traveling until such a watchdog system is in place.
As for the article’s third point, that using Japanese tissue paper and methyl cellulose to reinforce the fragile scrolls is causing harm in some cases: The IAA’s Shor pointed out that this is a well-accepted strategy in the document conservation world, citing the Library of Congress as an institution that uses the method.
Irene Brückle, an editor of the Restaurator who has written books on document conservation, said the Japanese tissue technique is indeed industry standard, but she also added that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for document conservation. Decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis.
The current controversy is actually just one of many that have swarmed around the scrolls. Discovered by nomads in desert caves starting from 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls then found themselves in a new humid environment that kick-started their degradation.
Ill-fated conservation strategies of the 1950s and 60s only made things worse. As the IAA’s Shor has written:
- The scrolls were at first unknowingly handled inappropriately and kept in an uncontrolled environment. Moreover, in the first years, adhesive tape used to join fragments and seal cracks caused irreversible damage. The scrolls were then moistened and flattened loosely between plates of window glass and sealed with adhesive tape. The ageing of the adhesives and the pressure of the glass caused the skins to darken – to the extent that some of the texts are no longer legible – and the edges to gelatinize.
Conservators started the herculean task of removing the tape in the 1970s and by 1991 they were placed in a climate-controlled storeroom. Conservators also began reinforcing the scrolls with various strategies, including with Japanese tissue paper. And then, as the Restaurator article points out, exhibitions of the scrolls increased substantially.
In the end, the current debate boils down to the precautionary principle. Rabin and Hahn think all exhibitions should be stopped until it can be scientifically proven that the traveling isn’t further harming the scrolls. The IAA and Israel Museum says they have the situation under control and that the benefits of exhibition outweigh the possible risks.
As it always does, time will tell which approach is wisest.