Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 20, 2007

Letters from home

About 15 years ago, husband Art and I discovered letters from the 1850s, written by my great, great, great-grandparents Robert and Rose Shannon to their children. The envelopes still contained remnants of the wax that had been used to seal them. I was awed and ecstatic that these documents had survived nearly 150 years, even spending the last half century in an old trunk in a musty old brooder house on my family's farm. So I can vaguely imagine what the Dead Sea Scrolls scholars felt when they first saw the scrolls, which date back more than 2,000 years.

The first seven scrolls were discovered in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds searching for a stray goat on the shores of the Dead Sea in what today is Israel. Finding them generated a search that eventually produced thousands of scroll fragments from 11 different caves.

When I read that the scrolls would be exhibited in Kansas City's Union Station for just a few months this spring, I knew I had to get tickets for the family. We're all history nuts, and youngest daughter Katie has been interested in archaeology for a long time.

The discovery of the scrolls is considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th Century. Archaeological digs often uncover pottery, coins, tools and other hard items - items that have a better chance of surviving the elements over a long period of time. But, except for the occasional cave wall or stone tablet, few texts have been discovered. Yet here were extensive texts containing religious manuscripts pre-dating others by 1,000 years.

Because of the expected popularity of the exhibit, tickets had to be purchased for a specific time on a specific day and were non-refundable. We were required to check all bags, cameras and coats, and security was tight. The scrolls had traveled incognito and no more than two were on the same plane, where each had its own seat. And the Israel Antiquities Authority, which handles their conservation, requires an around-the-clock guard and electronic security.

But we could still get up close and personal with the exhibits. To illustrate the challenge for historians, we could try our hand at a 50,000-piece puzzle or attempt to reconstruct pottery from a pile of fragments.

Some scrolls were made of papyrus, a material made from reeds, while others were of parchment, a material created from animal skins. Most had been wrapped with linen cloths before being placed in clay pots.

The arid climate helped protect the scrolls, but insects, moisture, rats and mold had damaged many of them. But all of the damage wasn't ancient. In an effort to protect the scrolls, those who initially studied them had taped fragments together and then placed them between pieces of glass. Over years, the cellulose in the tape began to soak through.

Preserving the scrolls involved un-doing much of what had previously been done. Scientists are using imaging technology, in which infrared light passes through the grime and reflects on the surface below, revealing the text. Fragments have been scanned and are pieced together on a computer screen rather than have human hands touch them.

Archaeologists are also studying clothing, pottery, shoes and combs found at the nearby Qumran ruin. They are hoping lice discovered in the combs will have human blood cells they can use to determine who might have put the scrolls in the caves.

Once we were educated in the science and history, we moved on to the scrolls themselves. The temperature- and humidity-controlled cases are lit for 30 seconds, then dark for nine so the light won't damage the documents. Although none of us can read Hebrew or Aramaic, the hush that prevailed in the room was an indication of how awed we and the rest of the visitors were.

All or parts of every book in the Hebrew Bible except Esther are among the 900 scrolls and the 100,000 fragments. The largest piece is almost 30 feet long while many are no bigger than a fingernail. They contain biblical texts, hymns, prayers, rules of the day, war conduct, wisdom and commentaries.

The Union Station exhibit, which will be in Kansas City until May 13, includes six authentic scrolls (Genesis-Exodus, Joshua, Psalms, Job, the Isaiah Commentary and Community Rule) and five replicas (Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Aramaic Apocrypha, the Damascus Document and the Copper Scroll.)

Scholars have said the scrolls are like "letters from home" because they shed light on what life was like 2,000 years ago.

After our trek to Kansas City, I came across a three-page family letter from 1925 stuck between the pages of a book. It was so brittle it had broken into many pieces, and the penciled handwriting had blended into the deeply yellowed paper. I got frustrated trying to put the pieces together because every time I touched them, they crumbled even more.

So Art did what scientists are doing with the scrolls. He scanned the pieces, did some contrast and color adjustments with software and then put them together on his computer screen. The letter - which explained how my father's veterinarian great uncle had treated a farmer's cow - was not quite in the same league. But it reminded me of what a task archaeologists and historians have as they try to unravel the mystery of the scrolls.

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