Sunday, March 7, 2010

From the Dead Sea to the Mississippi --- The Scrolls are here

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T
hey flew to town in first-class seats, accompanied by personal attendants. They took separate flights -- just to be safe. Details of their arrival were carefully veiled, but armed escorts greeted their last trans-Atlantic voyage.

All this for five weathered fragments of goat skin.

When you're sending the oldest written biblical texts from the Dead Sea to a museum along the Mississippi, you don't take any chances with checked baggage.

Considered perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls have arrived at the Science Museum of Minnesota for a seven-month visit starting this week.

The Israel Antiquities Authority will actually swap out the five-scroll set twice because the artifacts are so sensitive and fragile. They don't want to display them longer than 10 weeks at a time.

Negotiating to secure the scrolls' 13th U.S. visit and 21st trip out of Israel has been a seven-year odyssey for Science Museum staff, featuring a $750,000 conservation fee, a cave-exploring trip along the Dead Sea's northwestern coast and construction of the most sophisticated display cases in the museum's 103-year history. There was even a pivotal 2006 wining-and-dining session of Israel's directors of artifacts and treasures that began at the Mall of America and ended up at a Target store on St. Paul's East Side (more on that later).

"The Israel Antiquities Authority is very picky about how it does things, which is understandable given the age and fragility of the pieces," said Frank Petersen, security chief at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where the scrolls stopped last year. "They are broadly revered and hailed, and it's quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience and opportunity for a museum and its public."

No 'drop and plop'

From relics of Pompeii to the Titanic, valuable artifacts have been displayed at the Science Museum before. But these ancient Hebrew writings required a start-from-scratch $4 million exhibition. Everything has been tailored, from the video surveillance to the graphic panels on the walls to the climate-controlled cases, which use fiber-optic strands for heatless illumination.

Because light and dryness jeopardize the sacred scrolls, a micro-environment is pumped into each case through intricate plumbing from generators behind the walls, logging humidity (50 percent), temperature (68 degrees) and light. Data spreadsheets are e-mailed four times a day back to the conservation lab in Israel for weeks.

"We have what we call in the museum industry 'drop-and-plops,' where you take a special exhibition off the truck and put it in place," said Ethan Lebovics, who's coordinating the scrolls' installation in St. Paul. "This is definitely the polar opposite: a complete ground-up fabrication."

The Israelis negotiate to stage one show at a time, using the $750,000 fee to finance the preservation of parchment fragments that a Bedouin shepherd first unearthed in 1947. Some stories claim a youngster herding goats flung a stone into the cave, cracking open a clay jar. No archaeologists ever actually found any writings in jars, though, so those early discoveries could have been the work of profiteering tomb raiders.

"The kid with the stone is a nice story and may be an invention of the Bedouins, who were looking for hidden treasures," said Hava Katz, Israel's chief director of national treasures. "We will never know."

All told, 100,000 fragments have been found, including some as small as fingernails. Scholars have grouped them into 931 documents, including portions of nearly every Old Testament book of the Hebrew Bible. Scientists have been able to pinpoint when the scrolls were written: roughly between 150 years before Jesus through the first century of the common era. But no one is sure who wrote them.

It could have been a purist sect living in the ancient Dead Sea town of Qumran. Other experts, analyzing the handwriting, insist as many as 800 scribes were involved, so the scrolls must have come from libraries in Jerusalem before being hidden in the caves when the Romans came crusading into the area.

"Who wrote them is unresolved, but whoever it was left a time capsule," said Mike Day, the museum's vice president, who led a group of staffers on their first trip to the Holy Land and into the Qumran caves in 2008. "We weren't supposed to be in them, but if you've gone that far, you're not about to not climb in the caves."

'The power of the artifact'

In the early years after they were found, just as Israel was attaining statehood after World War II, certain scrolls flowed through private hands. In 1954, four scroll fragments were even offered for sale in the Wall Street Journal's classified ads: "... this would be an ideal gift."

Fifty-year-old photos of scholars hunched over the scrolls, smoking cigarettes with sunlight pouring in while using tape and glass to secure fragments, show how far conservation has come. The scrolls now float between nylon openings, far from smoke and light, to better preserve them.

Ownership remains contentious. Jordanians and Palestinians protested the Toronto exhibit, arguing the artifacts were illegally obtained. Israeli officials insist those claims are unfounded.

"We are the custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls and, as archaeologists, it is our task to expose these artifacts to the public and conserve them -- not talk about politics," said Katz, who is in St. Paul for 11 days to oversee the artifacts' installation.

She and Israel's artifacts treatment director, Pnina Shor, came to scout the Science Museum in 2006. Day took them to the Mall of America for dinner, but sensed their frustration as they searched for a drugstore to buy Centrum vitamins -- something you apparently can't find at the megamall or in Israel.

"It was getting late, so we took them to a Target store on the East Side and they were so happy, loading up on vitamins, Lysol cleaner, Reese's peanut butter cups and paperback books," Day said with a shrug.

Like the Bedouins along the Dead Sea, you never know where treasures lurk.

Besides the five scroll fragments, ink wells, clay jars, textiles, sandals, burial vessels and ancient coins will be on display through October, giving visitors context and background of the Second Temple Period before they get a glimpse of the scrolls themselves.

"Wait till you see them, floating in their cases," Day said. "Even if you don't read ancient Hebrew, the power of the artifact is extremely powerful." Star Tribune

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