DNA Research Uncovers Dead Sea Scrolls Mystery

A portion of the Temple Scroll, one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Israel Museum)

(CN) — Researchers in Israel and Sweden have found a new way to piece together the Dead Sea Scrolls by testing DNA in the parchments themselves.

The more than 25,000 fragments of ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls include pieces of multiple ancient texts, including the oldest known copies of books of the Hebrew Bible. Discovered in the late 1940s and 1950s, some of the texts — numbering about 900 — are believed to date back to as early as the second century B.C.

“The discovery of the 2,000-year-old Dead sea Scrolls is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made,” said Oded Rechavi of Tel Aviv University in a statement accompanying the study, which was published Tuesday in Cell. “However, it poses two major challenges: first, most of them were not found intact but rather disintegrated into thousands of fragments, which had to be sorted and pieced together, with no prior knowledge on how many pieces have been lost forever, or — in the case of non-biblical compositions — how the original text should read. Depending on the classification of each fragment, the interpretation of any given text could change dramatically.”

Though many of the pieces of the scrolls were excavated directly from the 11 Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert of the West Bank, many more were acquired from antiquities dealers, which further confuses the issue of piecing together which fragments are part of which original texts. Attempts since the 1940s to piece together the puzzle of the scrolls have been based mostly on the appearance of the fragments themselves and the visible text on each piece.

One of the Qumran caves where Dead Sea Scroll fragments were found. (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority / Shai Halevi photo)

In a new study, Rechavi and colleagues including Noam Mizrahi of Tel Aviv University, Israel, and Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University, Sweden, extracted ancient DNA of the animals that were used to make the parchments. Then, using a forensic-like analysis, they worked to establish the relationship between the pieces based on that DNA evidence and on scrutiny of the language within the texts under investigation.

Since the parchments were mostly made from sheep, researchers could group fragments which came from the same animal, and reasoned further that when DNA showed that the animals were closely related, the scrolls were more likely to have come from the same area and time period.

In one instance, the researchers found that two scroll fragments thought to belong together were actually from two different animal species — sheep and cow, which suggests that previous theories that they were part of the same scroll were incorrect. 

Some of the oldest known scrolls in the collection come from the biblical book of Jeremiah. “Analysis of the text found on these Jeremiah pieces suggests that they not only belong to different scrolls, they also represent different versions of the prophetic book,” Mizrahi explained. “The fact that the scrolls that are most divergent textually are also made of a different animal species is indicative that they originate at a different provenance.”

Although the DNA evidence adds to understanding, the Dead Sea Scrolls still hold plenty of secrets. The researchers had to extract DNA from tiny amounts of materials, and many scrolls that have yet to be sampled. Some scrolls can’t be sampled at all because doing so might ruin them. Nevertheless, the researchers hope that more samples will be tested and added to the database to work toward a more complete Dead Sea scroll “genome.” 

Researchers speculate that the method used in testing the scrolls could potentially be used on any ancient artifact that contains enough intact DNA or even other biological molecules, to learn more about the source and the artifacts’ place in the ancient world.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in this cave in Qumran in the West Bank. (Courthouse News via Effi Schweizer, Wikipedia)
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