The World of the Scrolls

In 1947, young Bedouin shepherds, searching for a stray goat in the Judean Desert, entered a long-untouched cave and found jars filled with ancient scrolls. That initial discovery by the Bedouins yielded seven scrolls and began a search that lasted nearly a decade and eventually produced thousands of scroll fragments from eleven caves. During those same years, archaeologists searching for a habitation close to the caves that might help identify the people who deposited the scrolls, excavated the Qumran ruin, a complex of structures located on a barren terrace between the cliffs where the caves are found and the Dead Sea. Within a fairly short time after their discovery, historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating, established that the scrolls and the Qumran ruin dated from the third century B.C.E. to 68 C.E. They were indeed ancient! Coming from the late Second Temple Period, a time when Jesus of Nazareth lived, they are older than any other surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures by almost one thousand years.

Since their discovery nearly half a century ago, the scrolls and the identity of the nearby settlement have been the object of great scholarly and public interest, as well as heated debate and controversy. Why were the scrolls hidden in the caves? Who placed them there? Who lived in Qumran? Were its inhabitants responsible for the scrolls and their presence in the caves? Of what significance are the scrolls to Judaism and Christianity?

This exhibition presents twelve Dead Sea Scroll fragments and archaeological artifacts courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority as well as supplementary materials from the Library of Congress. It is designed to retell the story of the scrolls' discovery; explore their archaeological and historical context; introduce the scrolls themselves; explore the various theories concerning the nature of the Qumran community; and examine some of the challenges facing modern researchers as they struggle to reconstruct the scrolls from the tens of thousands of fragments that remain.

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is located in Israel and Jordan, about 15 miles east of Jerusalem. It is extremely deep (averaging about 1,000 feet), salty (some parts containing the highest amount of salts possible), and the lowest body of water in the world. The Dead Sea is supplied by a number of smaller streams, springs, and the Jordan River.

Because of its low elevation and its position in a deep basin, the climate of the Dead Sea area is unusual. Its very high evaporation does produce a haze yet its atmospheric humidity is low. Adjacent areas to it are very arid and favorable for the preservation of materials like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Bible's description, in Genesis 19, of a destructive earthquake near the Dead Sea area during the time of Abraham is borne out by archaeological and historic investigation. While no evidence remains of the five cities of the plain (Zeboim, Admah, Bela or Zoar, Sodom, and Gomorrah) their sites are believed to be beneath the waters at the southern end of the sea.

Archaeological sites near the Dead Sea include Masada, Ein Gedi, and Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found).

Map of the Dead Sea Region


Map of the Dead Sea Region

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The Psalms Scroll

This scroll fragment was displayed in the exhibit at the Library of Congress, May-August 1993. It was provided courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The exhibit caption and translation provide background on the fragment and its relationship with the other Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran Community, and its Library.

The Psalms Scroll

This impressive scroll is a collection of psalms and hymns, comprising parts of forty-one biblical psalms (chiefly form chapters 101-50), in non-canonical sequence and with variations in detail. It also presents previously unknown hymns, as well as a prose passage about the psalms composed by King David.

One of the longer texts to be found at Qumran, the manuscript was found in 1956 in Cave 11 and unrolled in 1961. Its surface is the thickest of any of the scrolls--it may be of calfskin rather than sheepskin, which was the more common writing material at Qumran. The script is on the grain side of the skin. The scroll contains twenty-eight incomplete columns of text, six of which are displayed here (cols. 14-19). Each of the preserved columns contains fourteen to seventeen lines; it is clear that six to seven lines are lacking at the bottom of each column.

The scroll's script is of fine quality, with the letters carefully drawn in the Jewish book-hand style of the Herodian period. The Tetragrammaton (the four-letter divine name), however, is written in the paleo-Hebrew script.

Sanders, J. A. The Psalms Scroll of Qumran Cave 11 (11QPs[superscript]a). Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, IV. Oxford, 1965.

Tehillim. 11QPs. The Psalms Scroll (with transcription). Parchment. Copied ca. 30 - 50 C.E. Height 18.5 cm (7 1/4 in.), length 86 cm (33 3/4 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (5)

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Artifacts from the Qumran Site

These artifacts from the Qumran Site were included in the exhibit at the Library of Congress, May - August 1993. They were provided courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The exhibit captions provide background on the objects and their relationship with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran Community, and its Library.

Scroll Jar

Some of the scrolls found by Bedouin shepherds in 1947 were discovered in cylindrical pottery jars of this type, which are unknown elsewhere. Many authorities consider the discovery of these unique vessels in the Qumran excavations as well as in the caves, as convincing evidence of the link between the settlement and the caves. These jars, like the other pottery vessels recovered at Qumran, were probably manufactured locally.

Jar with Lid. Pottery. First century B.C.E.-first century C.E. KhQ 1474. Lid: Height 5 cm (2 in.), diameter 17.8 cm (7 in.) Jar: Height 49.8 cm (19 1/2 in.), diameter 24 cm (9 3/8 in.) Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (57, 58)


The textiles shown here are two out of scores of pieces collected together with scrolls and other objects from the floor of the Qumran Cave 1 in the spring of 1949. The textiles were examined at the H. M. Norfolk Flax Establishment in England, and the material was identified as linen. A total of seventy-seven pieces, plain and decorated, were cataloged and described by the renowned textile expert Grace M. Crowfoot.

It is possible that all of the cloths found at Qumran are linked with the scrolls. Some of them were certainly scroll wrappers; the remains of one scroll was found wrapped in a small square of linen. Other cloths, found folded into pads, may have formed a packing for worn-out scrolls inside the scroll jars. Still other pieces--with corners twisted or bound with linen cord--may have been used as protective covers, tied over the jar tops.

The wrapped scrolls may have been concealed in the cave at a time of national panic or simply buried, as was a common practice, when they wore out. The condition of the cloths would coincide with either suggestion.

Crowfoot, G. M. "The Linen Textiles." In Qumran Cave I. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, I, pp. 18-38. Oxford, 1955.

This cloth is cut along three sides, rolled and oversewn with a single thread; the fourth edge has a corded starting border in twining technique, followed by a woven strip and an open unwoven space. It was found folded into a pad and was probably used as packing material for discarded scrolls.

Linen Cloth. First century B.C.E.-first century C.E. 7Q, cloth 30 Length 35.5 cm (13 7/8 in.), width 24 cm (9 3/8 in.) Counts: 14x14, 13x13, and in one place 16x14 threads per cm. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (76)

The edges of this cloth are cut, rolled, and whipped on two opposite sides with single thread. On the other two sides, a double thread was used. Two corners are twisted, and the third has a piece of string knotting it, indicating that it was probably used as a cover for a scroll jar.

Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, I, pp. 33-34. Oxford, 1955.

Linen Cloth. First century B.C.E.-first century C.E. 1Q, cloth 15. Length 29 cm (11 15/16 in.), width 25 cm (9 3/4 in.) Counts: 17x13 threads per cm. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (75)

Leather Scroll Fastenings

Tabs and thongs like these may have been used to bind and secure individual scrolls. The fastening method is thought to consist of a slotted tab folded over the edge of the scroll (see "Prayer for King Jonathan" scroll fragment) with a thong inserted through the tab's slot. The thong then could be tied around the scroll. Fasteners were generally made of leather and were prepared in different sizes. The leather thongs may have also been used in the making of phylacteries.

Carswell, J. "Fastenings on the Qumran Manuscripts." In Qumran Grotte 4:II. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, VI, pp. 23-28 and plates. Oxford, 1977.

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  • Tabs: length 1.7-2.7 cm (11/16 in.-1 1/16 in.), width 1.4-3.3 cm (9/16 in.-1 5/16 in.) First century B.C.E.-first century C.E. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (90-100)

  • Thongs: length 7-30 cm (2 3/4 in.-11 3/4 in.), width 0.3-0.8 cm (1/8 in.-5/16 in.) First century B.C.E.-first century C.E. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority (90-100)

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