Hidden Script Uncovered in Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls

dead sea scrolls
Imaging technician and camera operator Shay Halevy shows on screen fragments of a newly discovered script found by Israel Antiquities Authority researcher, Oren Abelman, in “Cave 11” near Qumran, at the IAA department in the Israel Museum, Yerushalayim, Wednesday. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Advanced imaging technology — developed especially for the Dead Sea Scrolls and located at the Scrolls’ conservation labs of the Israel Antiquities Authority — has revealed script that could not be seen until now.

During the 1950s, archaeologists and Bedouin discovered in the caves near Qumran, tens of thousands of parchment and papyrus fragments written 2000 years ago and belonging to approximately 1000 different manuscripts. Due to their small size and precarious physical state, some of these fragments were placed in boxes without being sorted or deciphered.

Recently, as part of the Scrolls’ digitization project, sample examinations were conducted among these boxes. These examinations revealed that although no script can be seen with the naked eye, the new imaging technology (originally developed for NASA) used in the digitization project can identify script on some 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 hitherto unknown manuscript.

The fragments were presented on Tuesday at the international conference — The Dead Sea Scrolls at Seventy: “Clear a Path in the Wilderness.”

As part of the digitization project, each of the thousands of fragments is imaged in order to monitor its physical condition and make the best possible images available to the public.

The new script was discovered by Oren Ableman — a scroll researcher at the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority. When he examined a few dozen fragments that were discovered in “Cave 11” near Qumran, he was excited to discover traces of ink on many fragments that appeared blank to the naked eye. After a detailed study, Oren successfully deciphered the script on many of the fragments and even identified the manuscripts some of the new fragments probably belonged to.

Although only a few letters survived in these small fragments, sometimes this was enough to reconstruct the text. Still, due to the fragmentary nature of the evidence, these reconstructions are not certain, though they are considered highly likely.

New fragments were discovered and identified from the Books of Devarim and Vayikra belonging to scrolls that scholars were already familiar with.

Fragments of particular interest that provide new insights for the research of the Dead Sea Scrolls include:

A fragment containing part of the beginning of Tehillim 147:1. The end of the same verse is preserved in a large fragment that was purchased and originally published by Yigal Yadin.

Another fragment contains letters written in the ancient Hebrew script (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.

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