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The Dead Sea Scrolls are making the long journey from Israel to Denver.
On Friday March 16, the internationally renowned exhibit will open at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Its highlight will be fragments of 10 original scrolls, including one that has never before been publicly displayed. These are part of a library of more than 900 manuscripts written between 200 BCE and 70 CE that include the oldest known biblical documents, as well as records of ancient Middle Eastern laws, customs, and beliefs.
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Bedouin goat herders accidentally stumbled upon the first scrolls in 1947 in a dark cave along the shore of the Dead Sea near the site of the ancient city of Qumran. During the ensuing nine years, hundreds more manuscripts were discovered in other nearby caves. Thanks to this sensational discovery and the important cultural and historical context the documents offer, the Dead Sea Scrolls are widely considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.
There are conflicting theories about why the scrolls were stashed in these caves, according to Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar and religious studies professor at San Diego State University. “That’s the million dollar question,” she says. “What we do know is that the scrolls were written during a very politically turbulent time.” Toward the end of the Second Temple Period (538 BCE to 70 CE), the Romans destroyed both Qumran and Jerusalem, Kohn explains. “It’s entirely possible,” she says, “that either the population living at the site of Qumran or perhaps even people from Jerusalem who ran for the hills when the Romans started attacking the city hid the scrolls in the caves.”
The ancient scrolls were written on both parchment (untanned leather) and papyrus, and are incredibly fragile. Because of this, those on display at the DMNS will be housed in a large display case with individual climate-controlled chambers for each document. The temperature, humidity, and light levels will be carefully monitored to keep them as stable as possible and to expose them to minimal environmental fluctuations, Kohn says. In addition, because the Israeli Antiquities Authority has determined that 90 days is the optimal period for displaying the scrolls, they will be switched out halfway through the exhibit’s run. “After that,” Kohn says, “each piece will go back to Israel and will not be put on public display again for another five years.”
Kohn personally selected which scrolls will be displayed in Denver. “We tried to find pieces that are interesting on a number of different levels,” she says. These include a recognition factor—selecting a book of the Bible such as Psalms that people may be familiar with—as well as legibility, fragment size, and the topic of each manuscript. “We try to bring out representative pieces from the library so that people can get a sense of just how many different kinds of text there are,” Kohn says. “It’s not just biblical.”
In addition to the scrolls, the exhibit will feature hundreds of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts in displays designed to immerse visitors in the traditions and beliefs of a region that has had a profound impact on three major religions. One is a model of a typical Second Temple Period house filled with utensils, bowls, pots, and furnishings to offer visitors a snapshot of what everyday life looked like during that time. Another is a representation of Jerusalem’s famed Western Wall that highlights a three-ton stone that purportedly fell from the structure when the Romans destroyed the city in 70 CE. Museum visitors are welcome to follow the ancient custom of leaving notes listing their hopes, dreams, and prayers tucked between the cracks—a tradition that Kohn believes emphasizes the exhibit’s powerful connection between modern humans and our ancestral roots.
If you go: The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit will run from March 16 to September 3 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd. The exhibit will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Special timed tickets are required to enter the exhibit. Reservations are strongly recommended.