Research on the scrolls is carried out today from two different but related disciplinary standpoints. On the literary side, textual criticism, linguistic analysis, literary and historical criticism are employed to help us understand these texts as texts—what is written there, what unfamiliar words mean, what each text is trying to say, and where it fits among the other literature that we know from the Second Temple period. On the scientific side, a number of different tools and disciplines are employed to help us understand the material evidence of the scrolls, to answer questions such as: when individual scrolls were written or copied, which scroll fragments came from the same original scrolls, and whether scrolls and fragments found at other Judean desert sites are connected with the Qumran site and finds. Paleography (the study of handwriting styles), Carbon 14 dating and DNA analysis, and sophisticated photographic techniques are among the research tools being used to answer these and other questions.
Photographing the Scrolls:
The story of the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been bound up from the very beginning with the history of their photography, starting with John Allegro’s “capture” on film of the St. Mark’s Monastery scrolls. Scroll photographs are important not only because they give the public wider access to the scrolls (see Publication and Controversy) but because of the condition of the scrolls themselves. Written with ancient ink on ancient parchment, the texts themselves are often difficult to decipher—animal skins darken and shrivel, ink fades, materials flake away. Often, the earliest photographs we have of a scroll give the best record of its text. For an outline of the earliest scrolls photography projects click here.
Photographic reproductions of the scrolls (those most often seen in print and on the web) are made from the original negatives in three forms: prints on photographic paper, diapositives (positive transparencies) and negative transparencies. Images of the scrolls that are printed in published (DJD and other) volumes are generally four times removed from the original negative. An additional problem is that the original photographs themselves may deteriorate over time. Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman of West Semitic Research pioneered in using innovative photographic techniques (including high resolution and infrared photography, as well as, more recently, computer imaging techniques) to prepare new images of selected scrolls from Shrine of the Book, Rockefeller Museum and Amman Archeological Museum. For their website and online digital archive, see http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp/.
In a somewhat different vein, the Center for Manuscript Research at Brigham Young University (in collaboration with the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at Claremont, the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Oxford University Press) has created and maintains a database of digital scroll images, created from the microfilm collection held at the ABMC. This has now been published by Brill as the Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library. Looking towards the future, the Israel Museum has embarked on a project to produce digital images of the best photographs of all the scroll fragments and create an on-line database of these images.
The Copper Scroll presents its own unique set of problems for preservation and decipherment. In 1993, Électricité de France (EDF)-Valectra conservation laboratory was asked to conserve and restore the scroll, which had become extremely fragile. At the laboratory, a highly specialized team of metallurgists took apart and cleaned the document of remaining deposits, reassembling it with a specially made polystyrene shell to hold the segments in place. They also made another copper reproduction of the scroll. The recently published critical edition, Le Rouleau de cuivre de la grotte 3 de Qumrân (3Q15): Expertise - Restauration - Epigraphie, edited by Daniel Brizemeure, Noël Lacoudre, and Émile Puech (2 vols.; STDJ 55; Leiden: Brill, 2006), takes advantage of the new readings hitherto obscured. The second volume contains nearly 400 plates, with photographs and X-Rays of each segment before and after treatment, as well as the reproduction by means of galvanoplasty and digitalized images.
The scrolls were originally dated by Harvard scholar Frank Moore Cross on the basis of variations in the appearance of the handwriting. Ancient scripts were highly stylized, and changes in scribal features developed at a slow but regular pace. When an ancient document includes a date, such a manuscript gives paleographers a baseline, associating an “absolute” date with a particular style of script. Undated manuscripts can then be compared with the dated manuscripts and assigned a date “relative” to these documents, on the basis of typological features in the formation of the letters. Paleographical study of the Judean Desert scrolls shows that a few were copied as early as the third century B.C.E., and that most of the sectarian manuscripts were copied between the 2nd century BCE and the first century C.E.
Carbon-14 Dating (radiocarbon analysis):
Carbon-14 dating is the calculation of the ratio of the amount of radioactive decay that has occurred since the death of a plant or animal, calculated on the basis of a comparison between the amount of C14 present in the organic subject’s present compared to carbon isotopes that have remained stable.
The radiocarbon method was developed in 1949 by University of Chicago professor, Willard F. Libby. In 1950 he tested a piece of linen used to wrap a scroll from Cave 1. He reported the radiocarbon age of the item to be 1,917 years, plus or minus 200, prior to the year 1950. (Uncalibrated radiocarbon measurements are reported as a number BP [“Before Present”], denoting the year 1950; such uncalibrated data can be converted into more specific calendar dates.) More specifically, radiocarbon measurements are expressed in terms of one-sigma (68-percent confidence) and two-sigma (95-percent confidence) calibrated date ranges. The numbers represent how confident the researcher is that the true date of the organic subject is within the reported date ranges.
Until the late 1970s, parchment and papyrus could not be dated due to the amount of material that needed to be destroyed to do so (2-5 grams of sample for 1 gram of carbon). This obstacle was overcome with the invention of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), which requires only milligrams of parchment. In 1990 AMS was applied to the Dead Sea manuscripts in Zurich. To test Dead Sea Scrolls, samples are cut from column margins to ensure that no writing is destroyed. In the lab, the sample goes through a decontamination process. Then the sample is converted to carbon via combustion and the carbon is measured for C14 and other relevant isotopes.
As noted, radiocarbon measurements are not capable of producing precise dates to the exact year. They provide an average value with a standard allowance for error.
Scott R. Woodward from Brigham Young University’s department of microbiology has led a team of experts in using the tools of molecular biology to extract and analyze the ancient DNA of the Scrolls. Because the Dead Sea Scroll parchments were made of animal skins, analysis of the DNA can help identify the species, population and individual animal from which each parchment was produced, and can help to piece together otherwise unconnected fragments.
Over time, the ancient DNA (aDNA) obtained from the skins may allow scholars to answer more detailed questions about ancient scribal practices (e.g., how scribes prepared and repaired the scrolls), as well as more specifically about the scrolls collected at Qumran. DNA analysis should contribute answers, for example, to the questions of how many individual Dead Sea manuscripts we actually have and whether the Qumran scrolls represent a locally-compiled collection or feature texts from a wider geographic region. In addition, DNA analysis of human and other organic remains found at Qumran and related sites will add many pieces to our overall picture of the people who copied and studied the Scrolls.
See also Searching for Caves: Imaging Radar