Hidden bits of text written in Hebrew and Aramaic have been revealed on four fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls long thought to be blank. The pieces of parchment had been excavated by archaeologists and donated to a British researcher in the 1950s, reinforcing their authenticity at a time when other supposed Dead Sea Scroll fragments have proven to be fakes.
Stashed by members of a Jewish sect nearly 2,000 years ago, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the oldest known fragments of the Hebrew Bible. In the 1940s and 1950s, Bedouin tribe members and archaeologists rediscovered these texts in the arid caves of Qumran, a site about 12 miles east of Jerusalem in the West Bank overlooking the Dead Sea.
A few years ago, a team of researchers set out to study artifacts from the Qumran Caves that have been dispersed to museums and collections around the world. “In the early days of research, in the '50s and '60s, the excavators sometimes donated many artifacts, usually ceramics, to collaborating museums as gifts,” says Dennis Mizzi, a senior lecturer in Hebrew and ancient Judaism at the University of Malta.
Mizzi and his colleagues suspected some evidence from the caves may have gotten lost or overlooked along the way as these objects were separated from their original context. They found decomposed papyrus that was previously thought to be bat dung on the inside lid of one Qumran jar. They tracked down textiles used to wrap the scrolls that had been stored in a cigarette box. But they never intended to look for lost texts.
However, the researchers revisited a collection of supposedly blank Dead Sea Scroll fragments that the Jordanian government gave to a leather and parchment expert at the United Kingdom's University of Leeds in the 1950s. Because these fragments appeared “uninscribed,” they were thought worthless to text-seeking biblical scholars, but perfect for tests the Leeds researcher wanted to perform to date the scrolls. “When fragments were submitted for destructive analyses, they cut very thin specimens (not larger than a couple of mm) from the existing fragments. In other words, they did not submit entire fragments for such analyses,” adds Mizzi.
That collection was donated to the University of Manchester in 1997 and remained in storage in their John Rylands Library ever since.
Upon examining a supposedly blank fragment in that collection, researcher Joan Taylor of King’s College London thought she saw faint traces of a lamed—the Hebrew letter “'L.” Following this hint, 51 seemingly blank fragments bigger than 1 centimeter were submitted to be photographed. The library team used multispectral imaging, a technique that captures different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum including some invisible to the naked eye. Taylor, Mizzi and their third collaborator, Marcello Fidanzio of the Faculty of Theology of Lugano, were surprised when they got the results and saw obvious lines of text on four of the fragments.
“There are only a few on each fragment, but they are like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you find under a sofa,” Taylor said in a statement announcing the discovery.
“Some words are easily recognizable, like ‘Shabbat’,” Mizzi says. That word appears in a fragment with four lines of text, and may be related to the biblical book of Ezekiel, Mizzi says. However, he and his colleagues are only beginning to interpret the fragments, and he says it is too early to speculate on their meaning. “We’re still working to figure out the letters that are visible on the fragments,” he says. The team wants to perform further tests to elucidate the physical aspects of the artifacts, including the composition of the ink and the production of the parchment.
It is rare for new, authentic pieces of text from the Dead Sea Scrolls to surface. Thankfully, these fragments have a well-documented history. The researchers know they were excavated in Cave 4 at Qumran, where the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found along with thousands of fragments from around 500 texts.
Compare that to about 70 new fragments of the scrolls with unknown provenance that started circulating in the antiquities market over the past two decades. Although many of these texts were interpreted by biblical scholars and appeared in academic journals and books, some researchers continued to raise skepticism about the texts’ authenticity because of their murky origins and other red flags, like the style of handwriting. The Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 2017, had 16 of those newly surfaced fragments in its collection after they were acquired by Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green. Earlier this year, an independent team of art fraud investigators determined that all 16 are modern forgeries.
Robert Cargill, an associate professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa who was not involved in the new study, contrasted the fragments collected by the Museum of the Bible to the “properly-excavated, less sensational” fragments in the Rylands Library, which “turned out to be the real treasures.”
“Unlike the repeated scandals being reported at the Museum of the Bible, this discovery within the collection of the John Rylands Library is a reassuring success story about the use of new technological approaches in archaeology,” Cargill says, “and a reminder of the importance of provenanced objects that may not appear sensational at first glance.”