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

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

The Shrine of the Book exhibit in Jerusalem uses a rotation system. After a scroll has been displayed for a few months, it is removed and placed in a special vault where it "rests" from exposure.

When the scrolls are made ready for travel, no one ever touches the parchment surface. Cleaning and treatment is done from the back through Japanese tissue paper. The scrolls travel in a carefully designed case — skillfully suspended between two pieces of polyester mesh, with the precise stitch work nearly invisible to the eye.

“I feel a great responsibility,” said conservator Tania Bitler as she worked on a condition report for the scrolls she would hand-carry to Salt Lake City. “In the morning when I see on my table something so fragile and broken and then after my work it’s made stronger, it gives me a lot of happiness.”

The lab is located on the grounds of the Israel Museum. All the doors have digital locks, with most of the work done in a stark white room with special lighting that does not harm the scrolls.

A photography room used to take infrared pictures is down the hall.

“You can see almost everything. You can see what it is made from,” said photographer Yair Medine who uses a specially crafted lens, one of the best in the world. “A lot of questions are being solved just by being able to look at the video at this quality.” Slides from the 1950s caused confusion because it was hard to differentiate shadows from ink.

Few people in the world have the skill set required for the delicate treatment process the scrolls require. All of the conservators here are women who left Russia during perestroika. Shor said she had to talk one of them out of retiring because no one else could do her job.

When the scrolls go on exhibition, Shor and several conservators deliver and personally place each scroll in a specially designed table that controls temperature and humidity. It is a complicated process. The table is monitored for two weeks before the scrolls arrive. Once they arrive, the scrolls are acclimatized in a vault for at least 24 hours, with readings taken every 15 minutes.

Shor’s team has been working on the scrolls for 20 years, and 40 percent still needs to be treated and repaired.

“Conservation is a young science,” Shor said after arriving in Salt Lake City while Bitler worked on placing a scroll inside the table at the Leonardo exhibit. “We are taking the most severe attitude because policies are made for the most sensitive material.”

Shor said they had originally hoped to bring the scrolls to Utah during the 2002 Winter Olympics but the 9/11 terrorist attacks curtailed those plans. BYU hosted a small Masada, Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in 1997, but this is the first time scrolls from Qumran will be shown in Utah.

Paul and Shor lauded the instrumental role BYU has played in the translation, digitization, indexing and advancement of the understanding of the meaning of the scrolls.

Donald Parry, a professor of Hebrew Bible at BYU, translated the Books of Samuel and has authored 15 volumes on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Salt Lake City.

“This exhibit is far beyond my best hopes. I had tried to reach for the stars in the planning process and they gave us a galaxy,” said Parry. “It is Israel at our door step.”

He said, “This is what they looked like at the time of Jesus and the Apostles. The Biblical text are a thousand years older than the previously known Hebrew Bible.”

Dana Pike and Andrew Skinner were also members of the international team of editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scott R. Woodward helped establish a lab at Hebrew University to analyze the DNA of scrolls fragments and other archaeological artifacts.

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