Saturday, July 03, 2010

Proton beams for DSS analysis

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Proton beams used to analyze the Temple Scroll:
The analyses, which were conducted by INFN physicists in collaboration with researchers from IBAM-CNR, have revealed that one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in particular, the Temple Scroll (which is not part of the biblical narration and instead describes the construction and life of a temple and dictates how laws are to be communicated to the people), may have been made near the Dead Sea, in the area of Qumran, where the scrolls were found. In other words, the scrolls may have been created locally.
Much depends on what "may" adds up to here. This is potentially a very exciting development: if it can be established on the basis of the physical composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls that they (or even some of them) were produced in the vicinity of Qumran, this would have important implications for theories about the origins of the Qumran library. But the very cautious phrasing of the claim makes it fairly uninteresting. We already knew that the Temple Scroll may have been produced locally.

Be that as it may, here are more details about the analysis:
The analyses were conducted on seven small samples of the scrolls (average size of one square centimetre), following a request made by Dr. Ira Rabin of BAM (Bundesanstalt fur Materialforschung) in Berlin. The scrolls belong to the Shrine of the Book of the Israel Museum and the Ronald Reed Collection of the John Rylands University Library.

At the LANDIS laboratory (one of the INFN laboratories in Catania), non-destructive analyses were performed to obtain results on the origin of the scrolls. To produce a scroll, which was the writing material used at the time, a great quantity of water is needed. By analysing water samples taken in the area where the scrolls were found, the presence of certain chemical elements was established, and the ratio of their concentrations was determined. The ratio of chlorine to bromine in the fragments of the Temple Scroll was then analysed using proton beams of 1.3 MeV, produced by the Tandem particle accelerator at the INFN National Laboratories of the South. According to this analysis, the ratio of chlorine to bromine in the scroll is consistent with the ratio in local water sources. In other words, this finding supports the hypothesis that the scroll was created in the area in which it was found. The next step in the research will be to analyse the ink used to write the scrolls.
I keep harping on non-destructive and non-invasive analysis being the future of archaeology and this story offers some support for that point. But again, the wording is exceedingly cautious. What does "is consistent with" mean? Is the ratio inconsistent, say, with the ratio of water samples taken from Jerusalem? It may "support the hypothesis that the scroll was created in the area in which it was found," but does it refute the hypothesis that it was produced in Jerusalem or elsewhere in Judea?

I'm not getting too excited about this one until I see some more robust conclusions.

UPDATE (23 July): Robert Cargill has a useful discussion here.