The longest Dead Sea Scroll sports a salt finish that the others lack

The treatment may help explain why the Temple Scroll is remarkably bright

Temple Scroll

Understanding the parchment production process used to make the Temple Scroll (pictured) could help scientists better preserve the ancient document. Stock Photo

Decades after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in desert caves, the ancient manuscripts are still offering surprises.

Chemical analysis of the Temple Scroll, the longest of the scrolls, has revealed a salty coating on the text side of the scroll that hasn’t been previously found on the others. This unusual finish suggests that the Temple Scroll’s remarkably bright parchment was manufactured differently from other documents in the collection, researchers report online September 6 in Science Advances.

It’s not yet clear how the mineral coating may have contributed to the Temple Scroll’s striking appearance, says Admir Masic, a materials scientist at MIT. But understanding the properties of this manuscript and others like it could inform strategies for preserving these 2,000-year-old documents, which include sections of the Hebrew Bible, as well as help in spotting forgeries.

Masic and colleagues scrutinized a small fragment of the Temple Scroll using X-ray and Raman spectroscopy. These techniques involve shining radiation on a sample and measuring the light that emanates back out to map the material’s chemical composition.  

Temple Scroll fragment
Using X-ray and Raman spectroscopy to examine a fragment of the Temple Scroll (two views shown), scientists identified a strange salt coating on the text side of the scroll that hasn’t been found on other Dead Sea Scrolls.R. Schuetz et al/Sci. Adv. 2019

“This surprise came out, of salts that we weren’t expecting to find at all,” Masic says. The mixture atop the Temple Scroll mostly comprises sulfate salts, including minerals like gypsum, glauberite and thenardite, not previously seen on the Dead Sea Scrolls (SN: 11/17/17). “Sometimes you find a lot of inorganic components on these scrolls or fragments, and they probably came from the caves,” Masic says. But since the minerals on the Temple Scroll aren’t generally found in the region around the Dead Sea, it’s more likely that these materials were used in the scroll’s production, the researchers conclude.

This salt-finishing technique may not have been unique to the Temple Scroll. In further analysis of Dead Sea Scroll fragments from another cave, the team found traces of similar salts on another bit of manuscript. The next step is to identify where such minerals occur naturally, to determine whether the materials used to make the scrolls were imported from outside the region, Masic says.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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