Nov
29
2009

Thanksgiving and the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Forensic Files Mystery


The Regal Turkey: Purveyor of belly aches and contemplator of scienceCourtesy Woodwalker
While slowly digesting my turkey dinner this weekend, I got to thinking… could there be a connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and Thanksgiving? Ok, I was actually wondering why I ate so much, but it turns out there is such a thing as the “Thanksgiving Scroll” and recent research done on this scroll has added to the debate over the origin of the DSS and demonstrated, once again, the awesome power of forensics.

The 1QHodayot scroll or “Thanksgiving Scroll” as it is often called, gets its name from the recurring phrase of “I thank you” in its many poems. This scroll was one of the first scrolls found in the caves of Qumran.
Qumran Cave: Where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found
Qumran Cave: Where the Dead Sea Scrolls were foundCourtesy Grauesel

There are many theories as to who and where the scrolls were written. It is usually believed that the scrolls were created right near where they were found but one new theory has suggested they were actually written in Jerusalem by Jewish inhabitants who fled from the Romans in 70 CE, hiding them in the caves near Qumran.
Dead Sea Scroll
Dead Sea ScrollCourtesy Daniel Baranek

Enter modern forensics and X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). Researchers from Berlin, Germany used this amazing technology to analyze the ink and parchment of the Hodayot scroll. Carbon ink used in the scrolls was typically made of soot, tree sap and water. Inks during the time period of the scrolls were stored as dry pellets and then mixed with water right before use. XRF is so precise it can measure the ratio of trace elements in the ink sample. The Dead Sea is the world’s largest reservoir of bromine, therefore, the concentration of this salt in the ink and parchment samples makes an excellent fingerprint for the water used as a solvent to hydrate the ink and produce the paper.

The ratio of chlorine to bromine in the ink sample indicated that the water did indeed come from the Dead Sea and so they were most likely written nearby. Surprisingly, there was also higher bromine content on the parchment as well, which means it too was probably made near the Dead Sea (Sorry Jerusalem theory). In fact, XRF technology is so accurate that they were able to narrow down the likely source of the vegetable tannins used as the carbon base of the ink as a type of Gum Arabic from the acacia trees found near Egypt! They also found evidence of iron gall ink, used to make the ink more durable and adhere to the parchment, which wasn’t believed to be in use until many centuries later. Click here for the research results.

For my fellow science geeks, check out this website to learn more about X-Ray Fluorescence and how it is used to analyze all sorts of substances from ancient pottery to environmental pollutants. http://serc.carleton.edu/research_education/geochemsheets/techniques/XRF...

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