Science devises new method to sort Dead Sea Scrolls - Feature

Berlin, Germany - Physicists are on the verge of more breakthrough discoveries about the Dead Sea Scrolls, a stock of 2,000-year-old religious documents found in the West Bank desert, a Berlin science institute says.

From 1947 to 1956, an estimated 900 distinct documents were recovered by Bedouins and archaeologists from 11 caves near Qumran, a ruined settlement at the north-west corner of the Dead Sea.

The documents contain several books of the Bible, making them of vital interest to Jews, Christians and Muslims. All three religions are rooted in ancient Jewish doctrines. Unproved conspiracy theories have swirled round the scrolls for 60 years.

Some of the parchment scrolls were found intact, but many of the 17,000 torn fragments have been difficult to piece together.

To date, scholars have used a jig-saw-puzzle method, trying to match adjacent pieces by the words and style of script.

This week, Berlin scientists are to brief scholars on 21st century methods of sorting the fragments, which contain Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic writing and are kept at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The new methods, which include shining X-rays through the parchment and papyrus, are guaranteed not to damage them.

Re-analysis would not only help to resolve some fierce academic and religious disputes that have been based on differing readings of the texts, but also help reconstruct several more documents which had seemed lost for ever in the muddle of fragments.

The new methods were evolved by BAM, Germany's material-science laboratory in Berlin.

"We'll be able to say if any two fragments have identical material properties," explained BAM spokeswoman Ulrike Rockland. "If they do, they come from the same piece. No one could say that with certainty before."

The Dead Sea Scrolls were one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

A Bedouin shepherd, Muhammad edh-Dhib, discovered the first scrolls by chance in 1947. At the time the site was in Jordan.

A history published in 2009 says that to prevent pillaging in the caves before a scientific excavation could be financed and begun, Jordan's curator of antiquities, Gerald Lankester Harding, paid the Bedouin from 1950 to collect and hand in fragments.

To ensure no one ripped them, his agent paid by the square centimetre, with bonuses for especially large pieces.

But many of the scrolls had already crumbled to bits, despite the ideal dryness and darkness during the centuries they were hidden.

By the time they arrived in Jerusalem, it was often uncertain which cave each fragment had been found in. Even today it remains unproved that the caves even belonged to the people who lived at Qumran 2,000 years ago.

Most of the writing, dating from between the 3rd century BC and 68 AD, is on the cured skin of sheep and goats.

Last month the Israel Museum and Google announced plans to digitize the main scrolls and publish the images online for free within five years with a searchable database and translations.

The Scrolls have been a focus of public fascination for years, with sensationalist books claiming they debunk Christianity.

During the 1980s there was worldwide controversy over allegations that Israel was keeping the mass of tiny fragments "secret." Scholars broke embargoes and published images of the fragments in 1991.

Rockland said the Berlin laboratory worked on a variety of the goatskin fragments to develop procedures to catalogue them.

These include examination with light, electron and environmental scanning electron microscopes and advanced technologies known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy.

The experts devised standard ways to trace how each piece of parchment was made and how it aged.

"Goatskin is an organic material. If two fragments have the same X-ray, Raman and infrared signature, they must belong together," said Rockland.

The procedures can also identify different batches of handmade ink. The scientists manufactured their own iron-gall ink using ancient recipes to test what happens as it dries and eats its way into the parchment.

The sole disadvantage of the new tests is the high cost.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin paid for the initial, joint German-Israeli research project.

The results will be presented at a "workshop" in Berlin Monday where scientists and humanities scholars will mingle to learn how they can help one another to take the research forward. Authors: Jean-Baptiste Piggin, Ulrike von Leszczynski