2,000-year-old lost text uncovered in dispersed Dead Sea Scrolls fragment

Prof Joan Taylor in Rylands Library (photo credit: JOAN TAYLOR)

Of 51 fragments examined, four had text in Hebrew or Aramaic. One carried the word “Shabbat.”

By ROSSELLA TERCATIN   MAY 21, 2020 17:49

Prof. Joan Taylor of King’s College London has come across many unexpected surprises over the past three and a half years of working on the “Study of Dispersed Qumran Caves Artifacts and Archival Sources,” from millennia-old degraded papyrus in a privately-owned jar, to a large piece of textile mislabeled in Cambridge.However, the professor would have never thought that she would identify new text on what were previously considered blank fragments, especially because this was the last thing that they were looking for, as she explained to The Jerusalem Post.

“We were collaboratively looking at all sorts of materials from the excavations at Dead Sea Scroll caves in international collections, but we were not looking to find text,” she said. “It was a really accidental discovery.”As Taylor explained, the initiative, in cooperation with Prof. Marcello Fidanzio (Faculty of Theology of Lugano) and Dr. Dennis Mizzi (University of Malta) focuses on artifacts such as pottery and textiles while maintaining that manuscripts represent only one, even if important, piece of the puzzle. 

A Dead Sea Scroll fragments at The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library previously thought blank (Photo: University of Manchester)
A Dead Sea Scroll fragments at The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library previously thought blank (Photo: University of Manchester)

“We were interested in looking at the subject holistically and we wanted to consider the texts as an archaeological object belonging to a whole assemblage of objects from the caves,” she said.However, as she was going through the boxes of materials at The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, she found some fragments of scrolls. When she proceeded to examine them with an illuminated magnifying glass, she thought she spotted some faded signs on them.

 “I told myself that it could not be, that maybe they were just stained,” she recalled.However, after a closer examination, Taylor was persuaded that indeed some writing appeared on the surfaces, such an unexpected discovery that the project had not allocated any budget for the required multi-spectral imaging study to obtain more precise results.“It took us quite a long time to get it done,” she pointed out.The analysis was finally carried out at the John Rylands Library itself, that had recently acquired the necessary technology.

The results determined that of the 51 fragments which were examined, four presented some text in Hebrew or Aramaic. One of them in particular, about 2×2 cm, features four lines with 15/16 letters each. One word was clearly identified: “Shabbat”“The gate of the inner court which faces east shall be closed on the six working days; it shall be opened on the sabbath day and it shall be opened on the day of the new moon,” read the verse in the biblical book of Ezekiel that the scholars believe the text might be from (46:1, translation by Sefaria.org).T

he scholars are working on a new research proposal to find funding for additional research on the fragments.The Qumran material in Manchester was originally offered by the Jordanian government to Ronald Reed, a scholar from the University of Leeds, in the 1950s. The Reed collection was donated to the John Rylands Library in 1997.

A Dead Sea Scroll fragments at The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library previously thought blank (Photo: University of Manchester)
A Dead Sea Scroll fragments at The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library previously thought blank (Photo: University of Manchester)

Taylor highlighted that in the 1950s, it was relatively common to sell artifacts, also to fund further research.

This way, many Qumran findings end up in cultural institutions all over the world, as well as in private collections. Moreover, antiquities laws did not really exist yet and looting and selling archeological objects was common.The scholar explained that in their work they were very careful in always tracing a documentary history of every artifact they examined, both not to endorse any illegal trafficking and to make sure that no item was forged.

Among other unexpected surprise the group came across was a privately-owned Dead Sea Scroll jar still bearing its cover containing some black residual that once analyzed proved to be deteriorated papyrus, suggesting that scrolls might have been kept in it. Moreover, at Cambridge, a textile from Qumran that had been mislabeled was re-identified and examined.Taylor pointed out how further research on the linen fabrics found in the excavations, which were generally used to wrap the scrolls, could bring new layers of understanding on what happened in that corner of the Judean desert 2,000 years ago.“I have been working with the relevant department at the Israel Antiquities Authority and I have been particularly interested in radio-carbon dating of textiles,” Taylor told the Post. “The dating so far has shown more variety than some expected.

People think that the Dead Sea Scrolls were put in the caves just before the Romans arrived in 68 C.E. but actually the dates of the textiles where the scrolls were wrapped showed a huge variety, from the 2nd century B.C.E. to the late 1st century C.E. This is very mysterious but might suggest a scenario where the scrolls were put in caves for a long period of time.”“In addition, these fabrics are fantastic examples of linen, beautifully manufactured in Judea,” she concluded. “It could be very interesting also to look into the technique and expertise that people had at that time.”

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