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‘Picture on the Box’ for Dead Sea Scrolls Puzzle Found in DNA

Dead Sea Scrolls' DNA Helps Reassemble the Fragments

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The Dead Sea scrolls have been analyzed up close revealing the origins of the animal skins upon which they were written.

Discovered in the Qumran Caves , near the Dead Sea, in 1946, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of around 25,000 fragments of ancient texts including the earliest-known copies of Books of the Hebrew Bible. Now, the famous ancient scrolls are being reassembled using DNA “fingerprints” that scientists have gathered from the animal skins on which they were written over 2,000 years ago.

Analyzing One Of The Most Important Discoveries Ever Made

A new paper published in the journal  Cell describes the piecing together of thousands of fragments as being like a “jigsaw,” and in this instance the pieces are DNA samples gathered from the animal skin scrolls. The paper’s lead author and biologist Oded Rechavi of Israel's Tel Aviv University said the discovery of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls is “one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made.”

A Daily Mail article details the two primary challenges faced by the team researchers, the first of which, according to Dr. Rechavi, is that most of the parchments have now disintegrated into thousands of microscopic fragments, meaning that the pieces have had to be reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle, but with no picture on the box to go by, or scientifically, “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.” The team leader also points out that depending on the classification of any given fragment, the interpretation “could change dramatically.”

Dead Sea Scroll fragments were found in different locations. (Images are courtesy of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. Israel Antiquities Authority. Photos: Shai Halevi./ Cell)

Dead Sea Scroll fragments were found in different locations. (Images are courtesy of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. Israel Antiquities Authority. Photos: Shai Halevi./ Cell)

The second challenge comes from most of the fragments having come not directly from the caves in which the they were discovered, but from the often uncaring hands of antiquity dealers, meaning most pieces have no heritage making it much more difficult to interpret them in proper historical context.

Secret Origins Of The Prophetic Book

The team of researchers are extracting and analyzing ancient DNA samples from the animal skins used to make the priceless ancient parchments gathering new data which is helping them correctly fit the pieces together. Furthermore, the team reason that pieces of scroll made from the skin of the same sheep, for example, must be related, and that scrolls from closely related sheep were more likely to fit together than those from more distant sheep, or other species, according to the paper.

The team's forensic analysis of DNA evidence, combined with an examination of the written language of the text fragments, is getting them closer and closer to establishing how the fragments of texts originally fitted together. An example of this “animal DNA" logic in action can been seen in some of the oldest of the scrolls, especially in those with the biblical book of Jeremiah, where it was discovered that two scroll fragments previously thought to fit together were in fact made from a different sheep, and cow skins, suggesting that they did not actually belong together. According to paper co-author and Noam Mizrahi, also of Tel Aviv University, the new analysis of the texts found that these Jeremiah pieces not only belonged to different scrolls, but that they also represent “different versions of the prophetic book.”

Jeremiah Scroll from the IAA's Dead Sea Scrolls collection. (Shai Halevi, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Jeremiah Scroll from the IAA's Dead Sea Scrolls collection. (Shai Halevi, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Animal DNA Research With Poetic Implications

Following this trail of breadcrumbs, (now that was smart,) the fact that the Jeremiah scrolls were written on the skins of both a sheep and a cow tells the scientists that that these fragments came from elsewhere because it would not have been possible at the time to raise cows in the Judean desert , added Dr. Mizrahi. The new study also found some of the fragments to be of “uncertain origins,” other than the Qumran caves, Professor Mizrahi added. And the fact that different versions of the book circulated in parallel suggests that “the holiness of the biblical book did not extend to its precise wording,” which he said contrasts with the mutually exclusive texts that were adopted later by Judaism and Christianity.

Among the most culturally important discoveries so far are the new insights being gained in the relationship mechanics between different copies of a rare non-biblical, liturgical work, known as the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice.” Copies of this book have been discovered both in Qumran and Masada, at the Southern District of Israel, and while both copies are described as “closely related genetically,” the Masada copy is distinct, which indicates the work had “a wide currency.”

Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice is an early work of poetry and historians hold it as an exceptionally important artifact from the development of religious thinking, and Mizrahi said the conclusion of their paper “has implications for the history of Western mysticism and Jewish liturgy.” However, the researchers believe the only way to ever complete their “jigsaw” is by testing more samples and increasing the depth of their database, getting ever closer to mapping and rebuilding a complete “Dead Sea Scroll genome,” according to Dr. Mizrahi.

A report on the study is published by Cell, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.04.046 .

Top image: Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 109 (4Q109), also known as Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). From Qumran Cave 4.                   Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ashley Cowie

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