In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd entered a deserted cave in the vicinity of Qumran, near the Dead Sea, not knowing that he was about to make one of the most important religious discoveries in history. Inside the cave he found a nest of jars containing mysterious rolls of parchment. As he unravelled the ancient manuscripts he was the first person in centuries to witness the sacred writing hidden within. He had discovered the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the following nine years over 900 fragments of ancient Jewish texts were found in eleven caves throughout the Qumran area. Written over 2000 years ago on parchment, papyrus and leather, the scrolls are of great cultural and historical significance as they contain the oldest known surviving manuscripts of books in the Hebrew Bible. While some are in good condition, other scrolls are badly damaged. In order to preserve these important texts, a reliable and accurate method is needed to assess their condition and monitor any further deterioration.
Previous methods used to examine the current state of the Dead Sea Scrolls left analysts with a difficult choice: getting accurate levels of degradation but destroying a small sample of the scroll; or leaving the scroll intact at the expense of inaccurate and unreliable results. Enter the method that saves analysts from this painful decision: Polarised Raman Spectroscopy (PRS), a powerful yet non-invasive, non-destructive technique, able to give accurate results while leaving the artefact intact. PRS has been used by one group of researchers to reveal controversial new insights into the condition of a significant scroll, the Temple Scroll.
Spanning eight metres long the Temple Scroll is of great importance as it contains text previously unknown. The research group led by Dr Admir Mašić used PRS to quantify the amount of degradation observed in the scroll parchment. Parchment is made from animal skin and a major component of skin is collagen. In freshly prepared parchment, collagen fibres are organised in neat chains. As the parchment ages, collagen fibres degrade and change from neat rows into a disorganised mess in a process known as gelatinisation. In short, the messier the collagen the more damaged the scroll. The group developed a method to quantify the level of degradation by using PRS to measure the amount of gelatinisation in different sections of the Temple Scroll.
The resulting analysis showed that the level of gelatinisation varied across the scroll, revealing some sections of parchment to be in far better condition than previously thought. Areas in the centre of the scroll were well preserved; foremost, because the outer layers protected this central region when the manuscript was rolled up thousands of years ago.
These new insights should help preserve the Dead Sea Scrolls for many more years to come. As collagen is present in many natural materials the team also believe this method can be used to monitor the condition of wool, silk and hair artefacts. Therefore, PRS should prove a powerful tool for preserving our rich cultural history for future generations.
Schütz, R., Bertinetti, L., Rabin, I., Fratzl, P., and Masic, A., Analyst, 138, 5594-5599, 2013. doi: 10.1039/c3an00609c. Quantifying degradation of collagen in ancient manuscripts: the case of the Dead Sea Temple scroll.