Courtesy unknownSeveral years ago the Science Museum of Minnesota hosting a very popular exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls are back in the news again with recent developments of scroll scraps now being up for sale on the open market. Most of these pieces are smaller than a postage stamp and contain no writing of the ancient Hebrew texts.
Here's a link to our Science Buzz pages exploring the current science being used to learn more about the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Since their discovery, controversy has swirled around the Dead Sea Scrolls. A new wrinkle to that controversy popped up this week with a conviction of a man accused of identity theft, posing as other people in online discussions about the scrolls.
While you've got just four days left to see real samples of the Dead Sea Scrolls here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, in a few months you'll be able to view many of them in the comfort of your own home, local library or anywhere with Internet access. Google and the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced this week that they are working together to put digitized versions of 900 sections of scrolls on the net in the coming months. Here's the full story and a photo slide show about the process.
Several times while conducting geology/geography demonstrations at the Dead Scrolls exhibit here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, I've had visitors ask questions about where the Israelite Exodus crossed the Red Sea. Scientific study hasn't pinpointed that, but here's a story on research being conducted on how a unique wind effect could have played a role in the famous Bible story of the parting of the waters of the Red Sea.
Courtesy WikipediaTwo kayakers skirting along the south shore of Lake Superior last summer were just trying to find a place to get out of a sudden rain burst. Little did they know that they’d soon make what could be considered the greatest archaeological discovery of the 21st Century.
While waiting out the storm inside a hollowed out cave along the rocky shores of Superior near Bayfield, Wisc., the kayakers decided to explore a little bit around their new shelter, they found a pile of five rolled up deer skins. The top two were pretty moldy and crumbled in their hands but the bottom three were intact and completely amazing. While the outer sides of the hides still had traces of deer hair on them, the inner sides were tanned to a very smooth surface and had mysterious symbols written on them.
The kayakers, 20-something guys who wish to remain anonymous as they were paddling the Lake Superior waters without the proper permits and licenses, tucked their new-found treasures into their kayaks and paddled back to their launch point. From there, they drove immediately to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. One of the kayakers was the former student of Dr. Jonathan Nordquist, a professor of linguistics at the college.
Courtesy WikipediaNordquist, who specializes in Scandinavian and other northern European languages, was stunned. There had always been this “side rumor” to the Kensington Runestone controversy that Viking explorers who traveled the Great Lakes had left other traces of their exploits. Unfurling “The Lake Superior Scrolls” – as they’re now being called – he found runic characters that were similar to those on the runestone, but not exactly the same. Carbon dating testing done on small sections of the corners of the scrolls found that they date back to about the year 1032, around the same time that Vikings were exploring the North American continent.
After cross-referencing runic writings found across the globe in England, Italy and Greece, Nordquist started to unravel the messages encoded on the Lake Superior Scrolls.
“Unlike the famous Dead Sea Scroll, the Lake Superior Scrolls seem to have no religious or spiritual context,” Nordquist is quoted in today’s edition of Science Illustrated, where the full findings of the discovery were announced. “Rather, they message seems to be the lyrics of song, probably sung while sailing the open waters.”
Courtesy WikipediaAllowing for some differences between the original language and today’s English, here’s what Nordquist has translated a section of the first scroll to read:
Fine little girl waits for me
Catch a ship across the sea
Sail that ship about, all alone
Never know if I make it home
Ole Ole, oh no
Me gotta go
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said
Ole Ole, oh baby
Me gotta go
“What’s absolutely fascinating is that this appears to be the earliest known version of ‘Louie, Louie’ the classic rock-and-roll song,” continued Nordquist. “And when you consider the instrumentation available to Viking musicians of that era, you can hear the root sounds of that classic song.”
Courtesy WikipediaOn scroll two, Nordquist has not been able to make a breakthrough with the completely different style of runic writing it carries. But the third scroll has even more fascinating information, he said.
“It appears to be an epic tale, the story of an old, but gallant warrior who led his fellow Vikings on many successful missions,” Nordquist said. “But this Viking, despite his age and graying hair, could just not decide if he’d be able to give up the Viking lifestyle. He would sit by the docks where his ship was tied up weighing the pros and cons of doing another conquest while all of his younger charges would encourage him to take on one more mission. But alas, the time passed to set the line-up of voyage. But while the supplies and weapons were being loaded on the ship, this grand old Viking – going by the name of ‘Favre the Gray’ on the scroll – changed his mind, boarded the ship and led another hugely successful mission while the displaced captain – Jackson the Younger – held a clipboard at the back of the ship.”
Further details on information gleaned from The Lake Superior Scrolls will not be made public until exactly a year from today….April Fool’s Day 2011.
Work at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem provides evidence that the technology and construction methods described in the Old Testament stories of Kings David and Solomon existed. The excavations found walls and fortifications just outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City and are dated to being around 3,000 years old. More details can be found here.
Courtesy Nino BarbieriA recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Science reminded me of the importance of the Scientific Method Often we hear new and exciting scientific theories that seem plausible, especially if these ideas are presented in prestigious journals. However, the beauty of the Scientific Method is its verifiability, whether or not the data can be recreated through repetitive testing (If we truly believed everything the first time, our budding young scientists would have nothing to do!)
Michael Campana from the University of Cambridge and colleagues from across the UK and Ireland recently ran a sequence of DNA tests on 18th and 19th century parchments made from animal skins in order to reveal the complexities of ancient parchment analysis. Parchment is one of the most valuable archaeological and historical artifacts that can be used to understand not only language and history, but DNA testing on it can reveal clues to animal population studies, animal husbandry, different historical animal breeds, and provenance (where the animal or skins originated from). In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, DNA testing on the parchment could reveal what type of animal was used and possibly where it came from, providing additional data for questions regarding who wrote the scrolls.
Campana and colleagues analyzed both mitochondrial and autosomal genetic data using stable isotope, genetic, phylogenetic and ion beam analysis. All samples were considered to be well preserved and ideal samples for accurate testing. All but one parchment produced multiple DNA sequences that matched several different species including cow, goat, sheep, and even human. In other words, a parchment assumed to be made from one individual of one species, gave conflicting results as more than one species or more than one individual. Of course it can be assumed the parchment was not made of human skin and therefore human genetic data must have came from handling and processing of the parchment, but parchments can also be contaminated in long-term storage or contact with each other. Testing results can also be skewed by glues and inks or other preparatory treatments used to improve the surface. All of these factors need to be considered when testing truly ancient parchment like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Previous DNA test results from 2001 and 1996 on the Dead Sea Scrolls produced results pointing to a single species, either ibex (Capra ibex) or domestic goat. While these results may indeed be correct, the likelihood that the results were so exact, when testing such as Campana's and colleagues on better preserved and more recent parchment were so complex, questions the accuracy of the earlier DNA testing. Of course we must not forget, precious artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls can not be needlessly dissected to offer unlimited samples for DNA testing labs. But as, Campana states, “Improving our understanding of parchment's DNA content would allow us to develop a predictive model for sampling of historic manuscripts.”
So the messages for today, bravo for the Scientific Method and go see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Science Museum! Learn the science, archaeology, history and more that surround these amazing artifacts. Ask questions like: did the scroll writers choose ibex for some scrolls over goat because they thought these documents were so special or was ibex as readily available as any other animal species? Did the handling of the scrolls by shepherds who supposedly found them contaminate the actual scroll DNA with sheep, human or goat DNA? What can DNA testing tell us about other ancient artifacts? As long as there are unanswered questions, no matter how small, there will be a need for scientific investigation; which is good news for our future scientists!
Courtesy Ferran Publicity, no matter how you get it, is still publicity, right? Whether it’s by making your kid hide in the attic while telling police he’s actually in a weather balloon careening toward earth, or by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to own a tiny fragment of history, you still get fame. At least that’s what Southwestern Baptists Theological Seminary (SBTS) and Azusa Pacific University (APU) were hoping when they bought 3 and 5 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, respectively. Isn’t that illegal?! That’s what I was asking myself when I read the article detailing this transaction. Apparently the purchase was entirely legal because the institutions bought the scroll fragments from a private collector; a family who, in the 1960’s, legally acquired some fragments and stored them in a bank vault (I wonder if bank vaults are humidity-controlled). They put some pieces up for sale whenever they feel like they need a little extra cash, I guess. Like you do with any culturally, historically, archaeologically, and religiously significant artifacts you have lying around. And it’s precisely this importance that seduced the aforementioned institutions into buying them- they assumed that by simply possessing little Dead Sea Scroll fragments, their credibility and academic prestige would skyrocket.
Perhaps this is true. Maybe by having these very important pieces of history will attract more scholars or research-oriented professors who, in turn, write a lot of grants and bring in more money for the university (not to mention the money they’ll rake in from ticket sales when they put the fragments on display, which APU intends to do). But from a student’s perspective, if a university has a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as cool as they are, it probably won’t influence my decision about whether or not to attend. A university’s priority should be on teaching their students, and I’m not sure that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe even millions) on bragging rights is the best way to go about it. I know! SBTS and APU could use the money they spent purchasing tiny, fragile artifacts to fund a scholarship that allows students to study biblical archaeology abroad. That kind of publicity is what can put your university on the map in a sustainable way. Of course, you could just tell your students to pretend they went abroad and use the money to buy a bunch of weather balloons… just in case you need them for future publicity.
Courtesy Walters Art MuseumThe Dead Sea Scrolls have been radiocarbon dated two different times since they were discovered (excludiing the test on a piece of linen associated with the scrolls in the 1950’s by Willard Libby(the guy who invented the radiocarbon dating method)) by the Zurich Institute of Technology (1990) and the University of Arizona (1994). From these tests, researchers concluded that the scrolls are roughly 2,000 years old. However, scientists now think they can take “roughly” out of the picture, and provide more precise dates for the origins of the scrolls.
How would they do this? Is there a brand new method used for dating ancient objects?! Umm…no. Scientists will still use carbon-14 dating, but they found that a good ol’ scrub before the dating process provides better results (that usually holds true for people, too). I don’t mean that they’ll use soap and water (that would probably not be a good idea), but rather a chemical to remove plant residue. What happened was that in order to unroll the scrolls and spread them out without pulverizing them, researchers treated the scrolls with plant oil. This oil is thought to have interfered with the carbon-14 dating.
But now, after more than ten years of lab work, archaeochemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his team of researchers have developed a chemical that will remove the plant oil without harming the scrolls themselves. With this residue gone, the Dead Sea Scrolls can be more precisely dated, and history can be more accurately written (if you subscribe to the “accuracy” of history). At this point, there has been no new round of tests on the scrolls, and it’s unclear when that will take place.