Fragments of supposedly virgin Dead Sea manuscripts reveal hidden texts

Scientists have conducted a new study on fragments of Dead Sea scrolls kept by the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester. While they were supposed to be virgins, they found the presence of invisible texts.

While some Dead Sea scrolls have recently turned out to be counterfeits, others have appeared more valuable than previously thought. In the United Kingdom, scientists have discovered that fragments thought to be blank actually contain texts invisible to the naked eye. Lines of which some words could even be deciphered.

To date, tens of thousands of pieces of dead sea scrolls are listed around the world, most of which appear in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Dating back to the 3rd century BC, these texts were unearthed between the 1940s and 1950s in the caves of the Qumrân archaeological site near the western shore of the Dead Sea. This is at least the case for the majority of them.

For others, which appeared later on the ‘market’, the provenance remains unclear, raising suspicions as to their authenticity. For example, the Washington D.C. Bible Museum recently discovered that all 16 fragments it exhibited were in fact counterfeits. However, this is not the case for those studied in the United Kingdom.

Fragments studied since the 1950s
The fragments in question are in the collections of the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester. Unlike others, they never went through the antiques market. They were given in the 1950s by the Jordanian government to Ronald Reed, an expert at the University of Leeds so that he could study their chemical and physical composition.

At the time, these pieces were considered to be perfect for scientific testing as they seemed blank and therefore less valuable. Ronald Reed studied them before publishing his results and carefully storing them in his collection. A set that, in 1997, was donated to the University of Manchester, the institution explains in a statement.

Since then, the fragments have lay in boxes denominated at the John Rylands Library and have remained relatively ignored. Until Professor Joan Taylor, archaeologists and historian of King’s College London, took an interest. “Looking at one of the fragments through a magnifying glass, I thought I saw a small letter erased – a lamed, the Hebrew letter ‘L’,” Prof. Taylor recalled in the statement.

Frankly, to the extent that all these fragments were supposed to be virgins and had been cut for leather studies, I thought I was probably imagining things. But then it seemed to me that maybe other fragments could also have deleted letters,” she continues. This is how the study of these mysterious pieces began.

Readable texts and words
A total of about 50 fragments were photographed using a multispectral imaging technique. Six of them were then further analysed. They established that four contained readable texts written in Hebrew or Aramaic in ink. Traces of lines and remains of letters also appeared on other fragments.

Research is still ongoing and the results have not been published but some findings have already been disclosed. Dr. Taylor and his colleagues explained that they had identified on one of the most important fragments, the remains of four lines of text comprising 15 to 16 letters, mostly partially preserved.

Among these inscriptions, the word Shabbat has clearly appeared, according to researchers who suggest that the text could refer to the Book of Ezekiel (46:1-3). They also believe that another fragment containing text could be the end of a scroll of parchment, sewing traces having appeared not far from the first letters.

“With the new techniques now available to reveal old texts, I felt that we needed to know if these letters could be exhibited,” says Prof. Taylor. “There are only a few on each fragment but they form like the missing pieces of a puzzle that you find under the sofa.”

Analyses still ongoing
However, these missing pieces are far from revealing all their secrets and experts prefer to remain cautious about their interpretation. “We are still working to decipher the letters visible on the fragments,” Dr. Dennis Mizzi, a specialist at the University of Malta involved in the project, told the Smithsonian Mag.

The team also plans to conduct analyses to look at the physical aspects of the artifacts, including the composition of their ink and that of the parchment. Nevertheless, these results are already an unexpected and exceptional discovery on the Dead Sea Scrolls, a set of texts that continue, more than half a century after their identification, to intrigue specialists.

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