Several Dead Sea Scrolls form the centerpiece of and lend their name to a major ongoing exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The full name of the exhibit, which I attended on Monday and which runs through mid-April, is Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times. The “scrolls” are in that circular table whose edge is near the center of the photograph at right. They’re not really scrolls though. Not many of the things comprising what we call the Dead Sea Scrolls are. The first manuscripts pulled from caves near the Dead Sea in 1947 were actual scrolls — seven of them — but not so most of the items found since then. Those first scrolls have been described as “relatively intact”. Subsequent finds have largely been fragments of varying sizes. Pieces of parchment and papyrus containing writing were found in a total of eleven caves in the area and by 1956, when somebody decided they had found all there was to find, some 15,000 to 30,000 fragments of what are estimated to be more than 900 manuscripts had been retrieved. About 40% of the manuscripts are copies of books in the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament), 30% are religious documents not part of the canonized Bible, and another 30% are secular.
Ten of those manuscripts are represented in that big circular table. To help preserve them, they will be swapped out for a different ten half way through the exhibit. The actual bits of ancient writing are inside sealed climate controlled compartments. Enlargements, notes, and English translations are on the table’s surface. Attributed to the period between roughly 250 BCE and 100 CE, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in Hebrew with a respectable number in Aramaic and a few in Greek or Nabataean. All those in the exhibit are either Hebrew or Aramaic. I can’t read one word. Studying the scrolls doesn’t do much for me in practical terms but gazing on documents produced two millennia ago is downright awesome.
The scrolls are the big draw but by the time most people buy their tickets, they are aware that there is more — a lot more — on display. I regret getting no pictures in the first room of the exhibit where a museum guide uses three ancient jars and walls filled with changing pictures of the region to illustrate an overview of the scroll’s discovery and a little history. From there, visitors enter a long hall with dates on the floor and some seriously old artifacts displayed along one wall. Some sense of the world that preceded the writing and hiding of the scrolls can be obtained here.
Next up are some newer and larger artifacts. An accurate count of artifacts displayed is elusive but something above 600 is probably close. This is reportedly the largest exhibit ever mounted in Cincinnati. The 2011 Cleopatra exhibit had about 150 items and the Pompeii exhibit from earlier this year was just over 250. The rightmost picture is of pottery shards with writing on them. Waste not, want not.
As visitors get nearer the scroll display, artifacts seem to become a bit more involved with religion. Holders of incense and offerings are well represented and there are hints of a bit more idolatry than I might have suspected. The tall painted cylinder in the second photo is called a cult stand. It’s thought that a bowl with incense or other offerings would have been placed atop it.
Not surprisingly, no photos are permitted in the area where the scrolls are displayed. What was at least a little surprising to me was that the scrolls are not displayed in isolation. They are surrounded by more artifacts, descriptive texts, a short movie, and a stone wall. The movie and texts present some of the facts and theories about who wrote the scrolls, the circumstances of their hiding, and their relationship to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The wall is basically a replica of a section of the Western/Wailing Wall in Jerusalem but it frames what is believed to be a stone from the actual wall. The three ton cube was not ripped from the wall for the exhibit. Roman soldiers of about 70 CE get the blame for that. Touching the stone is permitted and this can be a very emotional experience for some. Visitors may also insert written prayers into crevices in the replica just as is done at the real Wailing Wall. These prayers are collected periodically and sent to Israel. A nearby video screen displays a live feed from the real wall.
The last part of the exhibit is, I believe, a Cincinnati exclusive. The Hebrew Union College here has been involved with the scrolls from shortly after their discovery. An HUC professor played a key role in the purchase of four of the first seven scrolls in response to a 1954 classified ad in the Wall Street Journal. In the 1970s, HUC secretly stored many photographic negatives of the scrolls for safe keeping. When publication of translations dragged on and on, another HUC professor published his own interpretation of many scrolls in 1991. That exposed him to being sued over copyright violations and he lost. Any 250 BCE copyright on the actual scrolls had most likely expired but the suit involved some intermediate translation work. Despite a courtroom defeat, a lot of the scrolls were now out of the bag and things have been a lot more open since then.
And they’re about to become even more open. The picture at left was taken at a free lecture I attended at the Museum Center in November. The speaker is Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The screen behind her is demonstrating a digitization project that the IAA has undertaken in partnership with Google. This is not the first time that some Dead Sea Scrolls have been digitized. The scrolls are not all owned by one entity though reporting who and where is way beyond anything I want to deal with. Lots of people have some and some are already available on line. But the IAA has a bunch and their digitization project is a big one. Estimated completion is 2016 with the first phase, consisting of a few manuscripts, going live in mid-December. The images are being recorded at 1.2 gigapixels. You’re going to need a bigger screen.