The Dead Sea Scrolls have long been a source of mystery. So named for where they were found—the Qumrun Caves on the north side of the Dead Sea—the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible ever found. Written between the third century BC and the first century CE, the scrolls also contain Hebrew scriptures which weren’t canonized and included in the Old Testament like the always spooky Book of Enoch (that’s the one with the giants and fallen angels). Also, the scrolls contain clerical writings about temple management and other things that would be boring if not for being a couple of millennia old.
Despite the incredible historic significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re still shrouded in mystery. No one really knows who wrote them. That is, it’s still not settled which culture wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. The dominant theory holds that the scrolls came from a Jewish society called the Essenes, but that theory has been called into question in modern times. Now a new analysis of the scrolls adds even more mystery. According to a recent paper published in Science Advances, the Temple Scroll—longest of the scrolls and colored a brighter yellow than the others—is covered in a mysterious residue of salt. This wouldn’t be so surprising considering they were found by the Dead Sea except the type of salt found on the Temple Scroll isn’t found in nor anywhere around the Dead Sea.
The salt found on the Temple scroll includes minerals like gypsum, glauberite and thenardite, which weren’t found on the other Dead Sea Scrolls. Researchers believe that this salt mixture was used to preserve the Temple Scroll and give it its distinctive bright coloring, but they do not know where the salt mixture came from. Nor do they know if the salt was imported, or if the scrolls themselves were written somewhere else or written completely separately.
Researchers say that although this finding raises questions about the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, it provides important insights into the technologies of the time and by illuminating how manuscripts in this region were printed could help researchers identify forgeries. According to paper co-author Ira Rabin of the Federal Institute of Materials Research and Testing and Hamburg University in Germany:
“This study has far-reaching implications beyond the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, it shows that at the dawn of parchment making in the Middle East, several techniques were in use, which is in stark contrast to the single technique used in the Middle Ages. The study also shows how to identify the initial treatments, thus providing historians and conservators with a new set of analytical tools for classification of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient parchments.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of those mysterious gifts that keep on giving, and it may be that we never solve all of the scrolls’ mysteries. Although that’s probably to be expected from a pile of paper sealed in a cave for two thousand years.