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Advanced imaging technology revealed script on fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that was not visible to the naked eye until now, shedding new light on one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.
During the 1950s, archaeologists and Bedouins discovered in the caves near Qumran, close to the Dead Sea, tens of thousands of parchment and papyrus fragments written 2,000 years ago and belonging to approximately 1,000 different manuscripts.
The small size and precarious physical state of some of the fragments rendered them illegible. These fragments were placed in boxes without being sorted or deciphered.
Recently, as part of the Scrolls’ digitization project, sample examinations were conducted among the boxes. These examinations revealed that although no script can be seen with the naked eye, new imaging technology, originally developed for NASA, used in the digitization project identified script on some of the fragments.
The identification of new letters and words provides new data for the study of the scrolls. One of the fragments may even indicate the existence of a previously unknown manuscript.
The new script was discovered by Oren Ableman, a scroll researcher at the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and a PhD student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He examined a few dozen fragments that were discovered in “Cave 11” near Qumran, and was excited to discover traces of ink on many fragments that initially appeared blank .
After a detailed study that was made public on Tuesday, Ableman successfully deciphered the script on many of the fragments and even identified the manuscripts to which some of the new fragments probably belong.
Although only a few letters survived on these fragments, this can be enough to reconstruct the text. Due to the fragmentary nature of the evidence, however, these reconstructions cannot be confirmed with certainty, but remain highly likely.
A different text for Psalms?
New fragments were discovered and identified from the Books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Jubilees, belonging to scrolls that scholars were already familiar with.
Fragments of particular interest that provide new insights into the research of the Dead Sea Scrolls include a fragment belonging to the Temple Scroll, a text dealing with directions for conducting the services in the ideal Temple.
Scholars are in debate if there are two or three copies of the Temple Scroll found in Cave 11 near Qumran. The identification of the new fragment strengthens the theory that a manuscript given the number 11Q21 is indeed a third copy of this text from Cave 11.
In addition, a fragment has been identified as belonging to the Great Psalms Scroll (11Q5). The new fragment preserves part of the beginning of Psalm 147:1. The end of the same verse is preserved in a large fragment that was purchased and originally published by Yigal Yadin. The new fragment indicates that the text of Psalm 147:1 in this manuscript was slightly shorter than the Hebrew text known today.
Another fragment contains letters written in the ancient Hebrew script, known as paleo-Hebrew. This fragment could not be attributed to any one of the known manuscripts. This raises the possibility that it belonged to a still unknown manuscript.
The digitization project is being conducted by the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit of the IAA. As part of the project, each of the thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls is imaged in order to monitor its physical condition and make the best possible images available to the public.