Ancient DNA Helps Unlock Dead Sea Scroll Puzzle

The bulk of the ‘scrolls’ are actually 25,000 fragments and genetic analysis is now helping researchers piece them together

One of the Qumran caves
One of the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scroll fragments were found. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Photographer Shai Halevi

Researchers studying the Dead Sea Scrolls have figured out a way to use DNA testing to help put together the 25,000-piece jigsaw puzzle presented by the fragmented 2,000-year-old texts, reports Josie Glausiusz for Scientific American.

The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in jars found inside a series of 11 caves near an archaeological site called Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and 1950s, reports Andrew Lawler for National Geographic. The texts contain some of the oldest known copies of certain books of the Hebrew Bible as well as calendars, astronomical texts and community rules, reports Yasemin Saplakoglu for Live Science.

The bulk of the scrolls are not scrolls at all but rather thousands of tattered pieces that have bedeviled researchers who have spent decades trying to put them together into cohesive texts for interpretation and study, per National Geographic. The 25,000 pieces may have once made up 1,000 separate documents and books, according to a statement.

"The discovery of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made," says Oded Rechavi, a molecular biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel and co-author of the new research, in a statement. "However, it poses two major challenges: first, most of them were not found intact but rather disintegrated into thousands of fragments, which had to be sorted and pieced together, with no prior knowledge on how many pieces have been lost forever, or—in the case of non-biblical compositions--how the original text should read. Depending on the classification of each fragment, the interpretation of any given text could change dramatically."

The genetic technique being applied to putting together this ancient puzzle, reported this week in the journal Cell, takes advantage of the fact that many of these shards of scripture and verse were written on animal hides—primarily sheep skin.

“The biological material of the texts, that the texts are written on, is as informative and as telling as the text that was written on it,” Noam Mizrahi, a biblical scholar at Tel Aviv University, tells Nicola Davis of the Guardian.

In the 1990s, researchers also extracted animal DNA from the scrolls but were unable to determine which animals they came from because complete animal genomes had not yet been sequenced, according to Live Science.

Fragment of Dead Sea Scrolls
A tiny fragment of the scrolls being sampled for DNA testing. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Photographer Shai Halevi

Now, with a library of animal genomes the researchers were able to extract genetic material from 26 of the scroll fragments and determine which species it came from. The researchers used what’s called deep-sequencing technology to amplify the bits of animal DNA extracted from the scrolls to see if the genetic fingerprints matched animals from the library, per Live Science.

The researchers were able to discern that all but two were made of sheepskin, with the other two fragments being from cowhide, reports the Guardian.

The findings are already allowing the team to make new inferences about the much debated origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For instance, the researchers write in the paper that the cowskin fragments likely came from outside of Qumran, which, with its location in the decidedly un-grassy Judean Desert, is not well suited to raising cattle.

When it comes to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the matter of provenance isn’t just about solving the jigsaw puzzle. It’s also about figuring out who wrote them. Reuters reports that many scholars think the scrolls were penned by a sect of Jewish ascetics called the Essenes, but others argue that the texts were brought to the Qumran caves from all over to safeguard them.

Pairing the newfound knowledge of the scrolls’ materials with what’s written on them has also paid dividends. For instance, two fragments of the Book of Jeremiah, once thought to be parts of a single manuscript, were revealed to be from different scrolls when genetic testing found that one of the pieces was made of cowhide, reports National Geographic.

“Analysis of the text found on these Jeremiah pieces suggests that they not only belong to different scrolls, they also represent different versions of the prophetic book,” Mizrahi tells National Geographic. “The fact that the scrolls that are most divergent textually are also made of a different animal species is indicative that they originate at a different provenance.”

The existence of different versions suggests to the researchers that the ancient Jewish texts were subject to revision and interpretation, rather than being fixed, per Reuters.

The genetic tests may also help discern forgeries, several of which were recently discovered in the collections of the Museum of the Bible.

"Since we can distinguish scrolls that originated from Qumran from other scrolls, Rechavi tells Reuters “we think that maybe in the future it could help identify real versus false scroll pieces.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.