The secret to miraculous preservation of a Dead Sea Scroll could be salt coating

Partial view of the Dead Sea Temple Scroll, one of the longest biblical texts found since the 1940s.

Enlarge / Partial view of
the Dead Sea Temple Scroll, one of the longest biblical texts found
since the 1940s. (credit:
Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images
)

A team of MIT scientists studied a fragment of one of the famous
Dead Sea
Scrolls
and found the parchment has an unusual coating of
sulfate salts. This may be one reason the scrolls were so
well-preserved, but it also means the delicate parchments might be
more vulnerable to small shifts in humidity than originally
thought. The researchers described their work in a recent
paper
in Science Advances, noting that better understanding of
the ancient techniques used to make parchment could also prove
useful for spotting
Dead Sea Scroll forgeries
.

These ancient Hebrew texts—roughly
900 full and partial scrolls
in all, stored in clay jars—were
first discovered scattered in various caves near what was once the
settlement of Qumran, just north
of the Dead Sea, by Bedouin shepherds in 1946-1947. Qumrun was
destroyed by the
Romans
, circa 73 CE, and historians believe the scrolls were
hidden in the caves by a sect called the Essenes to protect them
from being destroyed. The natural limestone and conditions within
the caves helped preserve the scrolls for millennia; they date back
to between the third century BC and the first century CE.

Co-author Admir Masic, now at MIT, has a longstanding interest
in the parchment used for the Dead Sea Scrolls (along with
other ancient materials
) dating back to his graduate studies in
Italy. The scrolls have shown signs of degradation since they were
first discovered and moved from the caves into museums, probably
arising from early scholarly efforts to soften them up to make them
easier to unroll. Scientists like Masic are keen to learn more
about them in hopes of slowing or stopping that degradation.

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The secret to miraculous preservation of a Dead Sea Scroll could be salt coating