When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves in the Judean Desert, tattered pieces of fabric were found with them, sometimes wrapping them and sometimes stuffed into the jars in which they were found. Scholars, focusing on the scrolls, arguably the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century, ascribed little importance to the fabric.
But in recent years, Dr. Orit Shamir of the Israel Antiquitied Authority and Naama Sukenik (a relative of Eliezer Sukenik, who identified the scrolls ) of Bar-Ilan University have shone their scholarly spotlight on the crumbling cloth.
Soon to be published in the prestigious Dead Sea Discoveries journal, their conclusions will likely not put to rest the heated debate over the identity of the people who wrote the scrolls. But scholars who surmise that the ancient volumes were written by a separatist sect will find in the research support for their position.
Shamir, conservator of organic materials in the Antiquities Authority, is in charge of a small, crowded, humidity-controlled storeroom in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim industrial zone, filled with organic materials discovered in various digs.
"I always say that I did my doctorate on rags," Shamir says, laughing. She studied weaving for two years, even weaving fabric on a model of a Second Temple period wooden loom that she built herself.
Among the finds in the storeroom are a number of boxes containing small, torn pieces of cream-colored linen from Qumran.
Shamir and Sukenik found that these fabrics are different from any others found in excavations from the same period. Both Jews and Romans wore mainly woolen garments Shamir says, and so wool is the fabric mainly found at archaeological sites. Most of the clothing also featured a dark red pattern described both in Talmudic and non-Jewish sources.
But pieces of cloth from Qumran are completely different. They are all made of linen rather than wool and are devoid of decoration. They were also bleached, apparently by soaking them in bicarbonate of soda produced from plants, which Shamir says was both costly and labor-intensive.
Shamir says that linen, which was more expensive than wool, was worn as a manifestation of religious observance. According to Shamir, both Romans and Jews wore white "to stand out and convey modesty."
The researchers believe that after the fabrics were too tattered for further use as clothing, they were used to wrap the scrolls.
The fact that the inhabitants of Qumran wore white dovetails perfectly with a description by the ancient historian Josephus that acolytes of the Essene sect wore white. He mentions elsewhere that these garments were linen.
The conclusions support the view of one scholarly camp that believes that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the Essenes, who concealed them at the site. But another camp, considered more radical, believes they were written in Jerusalem by the Sadducees, a religious faction that eventually died out.
Shamir and Sukenik are in no hurry to tie their research to either school of thought, but it is hard to ignore the fact that it supports the theory that community of anchorites lived at Qumran and wrapped their sacred scrolls in the remnants of their garments, hiding them in the caves for generations.
Shamir points out the great similarity between the archaeological finds at the site and descriptions of the sect. Qumran is also unusual in that no evidence of weaving, traditional women's work, was found there, which Shamir says also supports that a sect in which no women were present lived at Qumran.
Four pieces of fabric stand out among the hundreds in the study. They bore a single blue thread, woven in a square. Shamir, like the late scholar of the Judean Desert and Masada, Yigael Yadin, believes this fabric was not in secondary use, but was made to wrap and protect the scrolls, and the single blue thread was made to represent the Temple.
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