(CN) – The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the most ancient and well-preserved religious materials known, and researchers announced Friday their discovery of how the documents managed to survive thousands of years.
First discovered in 1947 by wandering shepherds, the scrolls are a collection of religious documents kept hidden in 11 different caves around the Dead Sea hillsides as an attempt by war refugees to protect their sacred texts from the invading Romans.
One scroll in particular was more well-preserved than all 900 recovered texts since the first discovery, and it is known as the Temple Scroll. It spreads almost 25 feet long, it is the thinnest of all the documents and has the whitest writing surface, inviting questions as to how it could have been made to withstand millennia of aging.
In a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances, Admir Masic, MIT assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, discovered exactly how this amazing feat was accomplished. They found that the Temple Scroll was made with a mixture of salts leftover from the evaporation of highly concentrated saltwater called brine.
Masic and his team studied fragments of this material from the Israeli museum Shrine of the Book, which is wholly dedicated to the ancient Hebrew texts. They utilized a process called large-area, submicron-scale, non-invasive characterization in which they can examine in great detail the fragment’s exact composition without disrupting its integrity.
Masic and his team found that it contained high concentrations of sulfur, sodium, and calcium, providing clues as to how these scrolls came to be.
Average parchment from the Middle Ages and onward was made from soaked animal skin that was then scrubbed clean and stretched, but sometimes it was also rubbed with salts for further preservation. Masic suspects this, along with another sort of coating with the brine salt, contributed to its bright white color and astounding longevity.
After being shielded from the outside world for so long, the scrolls are degrading at a faster rate than first anticipated due to their examination. However, with time and a deeper understanding of this process, the study said scientists can better uncover secrets about the ancient world while also developing new ways to preserve other historical documents.