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From Israel to Salt Lake City: Inside the journey of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Editor's note: KSL senior producer Candice Madsen and a team from KSL-TV traveled to Jerusalem to view the meticulous care needed to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls to Salt Lake City.

JERUSALEM — On a departing flight from Tel Aviv earlier this month, excitement buzzed among flight attendants aware of the special cargo on board headed to Salt Lake City.

A few passengers may have noticed the security detail that accompanied a woman to the gate. But the nondescript bags she was carrying could have contained clothing or toiletries or any item one might take on a trip, drawing no attention to the priceless artifacts inside.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe the Dead Sea Scrolls are on this plane,” said one crew member. “I can’t wait to tell my kids.”

Awe, wonder and mystery still surround the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, "thought to be the archeological discovery of the 20th century,” said Pnina Shor, curator and the head of Dead Sea Scrolls Projects. “We are talking about a corpus of over 900 manuscripts that include all of the books of the (Hebrew) Bible except for the book of Esther.”

A Bedouin shepherd looking for his goat discovered the first set of scrolls in 1947 in a cave at Qumran in the West Bank, about a mile inland from the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. It is here where archeologists unearthed scrolls in 11 caves over a decade.

The Israel Antiquities Authority granted KSL Television access inside the Dead Sea Scrolls lab in Jerusalem to see the work that goes into preserving, protecting and preparing the ancient texts for display, and inside the caves where the scrolls were found.

Many tourists visit the Qumran ruins where people lived, but few venture up to the caves where the scrolls were found. At Cave 1, expansive desert views stretch to the Dead Sea and provide a constant reprieve from the sun.

Dozens of birds take refuge there and centuries worth of bat dung covers the rocks and walls. But the cave itself is not very deep.

The scroll jars rested undisturbed, their lids sealed until a shepherd threw a rock in the cave. Instead of hearing the reverberation of the rock against the cavernous walls, he heard a gigantic crash.

“I like to call it the big crash that started the entire investigation and discovery of the scrolls,” said Shalom Paul, professor emeritus at Hebrew University and Chair of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. “Let’s call it in modern terms the Big Bang.”

The seven scrolls were the best preserved and are on display at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. Archeologists discovered 90 percent of the scrolls amongst the rubble in Cave 4, which is the cave closest to where people lived and may have been a repository.

"When we talk about the scrolls, we are really talking about (thousands of) fragments," said BYU professor David Seely, who helped translate the scrolls and is currently teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center. There is a theory that Romans may have found the cave and jumped up and down on the scrolls "to help along the destruction process," Seely said.

Seely says inside the cave you can see "where the shelves were anciently and where these scrolls were stacked and organized in some way."

The desert air with its low humidity and 68- to 70-degree temperatures, combined with the caves' dark environment preserved the scrolls for centuries. But human handling quickly took its toll.

The first scholars attached them to glass with cellophane tape, which caused irreversible damage. Now the Israel Antiquities Authority balances preserving the scrolls with the desire of the public to view the treasure, which, beginning Friday, will be available to those who visit The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake City.

Preparing the scrolls

The Shrine of the Book exhibit in Jerusalem uses a rotation system. After a scroll has been displayed for a few months, it is removed and placed in a special vault where it "rests" from exposure.

When the scrolls are made ready for travel, no one ever touches the parchment surface. Cleaning and treatment is done from the back through Japanese tissue paper. The scrolls travel in a carefully designed case — skillfully suspended between two pieces of polyester mesh, with the precise stitch work nearly invisible to the eye.

“I feel a great responsibility,” said conservator Tania Bitler as she worked on a condition report for the scrolls she would hand-carry to Salt Lake City. “In the morning when I see on my table something so fragile and broken and then after my work it’s made stronger, it gives me a lot of happiness.”

The lab is located on the grounds of the Israel Museum. All the doors have digital locks, with most of the work done in a stark white room with special lighting that does not harm the scrolls.

A photography room used to take infrared pictures is down the hall.

“You can see almost everything. You can see what it is made from,” said photographer Yair Medine who uses a specially crafted lens, one of the best in the world. “A lot of questions are being solved just by being able to look at the video at this quality.” Slides from the 1950s caused confusion because it was hard to differentiate shadows from ink.

Few people in the world have the skill set required for the delicate treatment process the scrolls require. All of the conservators here are women who left Russia during perestroika. Shor said she had to talk one of them out of retiring because no one else could do her job.

When the scrolls go on exhibition, Shor and several conservators deliver and personally place each scroll in a specially designed table that controls temperature and humidity. It is a complicated process. The table is monitored for two weeks before the scrolls arrive. Once they arrive, the scrolls are acclimatized in a vault for at least 24 hours, with readings taken every 15 minutes.

Shor’s team has been working on the scrolls for 20 years, and 40 percent still needs to be treated and repaired.

“Conservation is a young science,” Shor said after arriving in Salt Lake City while Bitler worked on placing a scroll inside the table at the Leonardo exhibit. “We are taking the most severe attitude because policies are made for the most sensitive material.”

Shor said they had originally hoped to bring the scrolls to Utah during the 2002 Winter Olympics but the 9/11 terrorist attacks curtailed those plans. BYU hosted a small Masada, Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in 1997, but this is the first time scrolls from Qumran will be shown in Utah.

Paul and Shor lauded the instrumental role BYU has played in the translation, digitization, indexing and advancement of the understanding of the meaning of the scrolls.

Donald Parry, a professor of Hebrew Bible at BYU, translated the Books of Samuel and has authored 15 volumes on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Salt Lake City.

“This exhibit is far beyond my best hopes. I had tried to reach for the stars in the planning process and they gave us a galaxy,” said Parry. “It is Israel at our door step.”

He said, “This is what they looked like at the time of Jesus and the Apostles. The Biblical text are a thousand years older than the previously known Hebrew Bible.”

Dana Pike and Andrew Skinner were also members of the international team of editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scott R. Woodward helped establish a lab at Hebrew University to analyze the DNA of scrolls fragments and other archaeological artifacts.

When the exhibit was announced in April, Israeli Consul General David Siegel told the Deseret News the exhibit would be a reflection of Utah’s long-standing relationship with Israel, a “hugely significant moment for Israel, for Utah, for our shared past, for our shared faith and our shared future.”

Ten scrolls will be displayed at a time during the Leonardo museum. The IAA will come back in February with a new set of 10. Two scrolls in each session have never before been seen by the public.

“I think people in Utah will be delighted to see these. There is something about the actual fragment, no matter what fragment it is,” said Seely. “They all have a little history.”

The people

Scholars believe the majority of the scrolls were written between 200 B.C and 200 A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times exhibit at The Leonardo will give visitors the chance to see the largest collection of scrolls and Holy Land artifacts ever assembled outside of Israel.

“The idea is to show the complete story and give the background,” said Debora Ben Ami, Iron Age collection curator at the IAA, while crews worked on finishing construction of the Salt Lake exhibit. “These are not just artifacts, they represent people's lives and their spiritual evolution."

The scrolls contain the library of a Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes left Jerusalem to live a purer life. Seely said little was known about this group prior to the discovery of the scrolls.

“They provide context of the world of Jesus. We find out there was a rich variety of Judaism at that time that had lots of views similar to Christianity, explained Paul. Before the Scrolls were found there was no literature that could point to roots of Christianity in Judaism. “The discovery is amazing, and I feel an affinity towards them because you see the Bible in its developmental stages.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls also shed light on the rules and beliefs of the Essenes. Daily routines revolved around ritual baths, a practice not followed by other sects of Judaism. "They believed in purification. Everything must be pure," said Dr. Uzi Dahari, deputy director for archaeology for the IAA.

Only the people considered most pure were allowed to live inside the compound at Qumran. Everything had to be pure, including perhaps the dishes. One of the first mysteries archeologists unearthed were thousands of bowls. And some of those bowls are part of the exhibit.

Another focal point of the exhibit is an 8-ton section of the Western Wall, which is one of the last remnants of Israel’s holy temple.

BYU has also provided additional artifacts, and a display will showcase how local innovation contributed to the work done on the scrolls.

The exhibit

The exhibit opens to the public Friday. General admission is $23.95. Discount prices are available for students, seniors, youth and military. Since this is a popular exhibit, patrons are encouraged to buy tickets online and sign up for a specific entry time.

Candice Madsen is a senior producer of special projects for KSL-TV and produces the weekly television program Deseret News Sunday Edition. EMAIL: