Friday, October 16, 2009

NOTES ON THE CONSERVATION of the Dead Sea Scrolls in an article by Dylan Robertson in The Varsity (in connection with the Royal Ontario Museum exhibition):
Conservators and biblical scholars sorted and catalogued thousands of pieces of scrolls. Although some had been kept in jars and remained mostly undamaged, most were found in thumbnail-sized bits. One cave alone contained more than 10,000 fragments.

The team compared each piece by texture, colour, and handwriting, assembling the pieces like a massive jigsaw puzzle.

“You have to realize that no computers or analytical tools were used at the time,” said Rahimi.

When a match was found, the pieces would be scotch-taped together and sandwiched between two glass panels.

This process proved to be devastating to the scrolls. Although some were written on papyrus, most were parchment, an organic material highly sensitive to changes in temperature and light. The natural light from the Scrollery’s large windows, combined with the pressure of the glass plates and chemicals from the transparent tape, proved to be detrimental.

One of the most surprising things at the ROM exhibit is photographs of the scientists of the time piecing together ancient scrolls while blithely holding lit cigarettes between their fingers.

As technology improved, so began an effort to restore the scrolls.

First, the scrolls were recorded and photographed. Scientists then removed the adhesive residue from the tape using organic solvents. The pieces were cleaned of any oils and stains, and the back of the scrolls were reinforced if needed.

Conservationists then arranged the scrolls on acid-free cardboard and attached the pieces with hinges of Japanese tissue paper. These sheets were then put in protective boxes in a climate-controlled store room and checked periodically.

When being prepared for exhibition, each scroll was cross-stitched through a frame in order to hold it together.
It's easy to forget that the much-maligned original team of Scrolls scholars devoted ten years of their lives to sorting the many thousands of small fragments into their respective manuscripts - this based just on the handwriting; the content; and the color, consistency, and shape of the leather fragments.