From Israel to Salt Lake City: Inside the journey of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 20 2013 10:15 p.m. MST

Editor's note: KSL senior producer Candice Madsen and a team from KSL-TV traveled to Jerusalem to view the meticulous care needed to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls to Salt Lake City.

JERUSALEM — On a departing flight from Tel Aviv earlier this month, excitement buzzed among flight attendants aware of the special cargo on board headed to Salt Lake City.

A few passengers may have noticed the security detail that accompanied a woman to the gate. But the nondescript bags she was carrying could have contained clothing or toiletries or any item one might take on a trip, drawing no attention to the priceless artifacts inside.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe the Dead Sea Scrolls are on this plane,” said one crew member. “I can’t wait to tell my kids.”

Awe, wonder and mystery still surround the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, "thought to be the archeological discovery of the 20th century,” said Pnina Shor, curator and the head of Dead Sea Scrolls Projects. “We are talking about a corpus of over 900 manuscripts that include all of the books of the (Hebrew) Bible except for the book of Esther.”

A Bedouin shepherd looking for his goat discovered the first set of scrolls in 1947 in a cave at Qumran in the West Bank, about a mile inland from the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. It is here where archeologists unearthed scrolls in 11 caves over a decade.

The Israel Antiquities Authority granted KSL Television access inside the Dead Sea Scrolls lab in Jerusalem to see the work that goes into preserving, protecting and preparing the ancient texts for display, and inside the caves where the scrolls were found.

Many tourists visit the Qumran ruins where people lived, but few venture up to the caves where the scrolls were found. At Cave 1, expansive desert views stretch to the Dead Sea and provide a constant reprieve from the sun.

Dozens of birds take refuge there and centuries worth of bat dung covers the rocks and walls. But the cave itself is not very deep.

The scroll jars rested undisturbed, their lids sealed until a shepherd threw a rock in the cave. Instead of hearing the reverberation of the rock against the cavernous walls, he heard a gigantic crash.

“I like to call it the big crash that started the entire investigation and discovery of the scrolls,” said Shalom Paul, professor emeritus at Hebrew University and Chair of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. “Let’s call it in modern terms the Big Bang.”

The seven scrolls were the best preserved and are on display at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. Archeologists discovered 90 percent of the scrolls amongst the rubble in Cave 4, which is the cave closest to where people lived and may have been a repository.

"When we talk about the scrolls, we are really talking about (thousands of) fragments," said BYU professor David Seely, who helped translate the scrolls and is currently teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center. There is a theory that Romans may have found the cave and jumped up and down on the scrolls "to help along the destruction process," Seely said.

Seely says inside the cave you can see "where the shelves were anciently and where these scrolls were stacked and organized in some way."

The desert air with its low humidity and 68- to 70-degree temperatures, combined with the caves' dark environment preserved the scrolls for centuries. But human handling quickly took its toll.

The first scholars attached them to glass with cellophane tape, which caused irreversible damage. Now the Israel Antiquities Authority balances preserving the scrolls with the desire of the public to view the treasure, which, beginning Friday, will be available to those who visit The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake City.

Preparing the scrolls

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