4 Israeli Women Work Tirelessly to Save Dead Sea Scrolls

The scrolls, dating from about 300 BCE to 70 CE, were discovered in the caves of Qumran in the mid-1940s.

For the past two and a half months, Tania Treiger, a conservator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, has been pouring over a piece of parchment about 20 centimeters square. It began with a microscopic examination of the fragment to gauge its condition, and continued with the placement of special paper over the writing to very slowly remove the circa 1970s adhesive tape.

Treiger, whose tools include Q-tips, tweezers and lots of patience, is one of four "guardians" of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These four women, all from the former Soviet Union, are the only people in the world permitted to touch the scrolls.

The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among the most important archaeological finds in the world, were discovered in the mid-1940s in the Dead Sea area, and have been making headlines ever since. This week, the Hebrew daily Maariv reported that the IAA had decided to stop sending the scrolls abroad to exhibitions for fear of legal complications, after the Jordanian government demanded that Israel return scrolls to Jordan. In 1967 the Jordanians tried to remove the scrolls from the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem to Jordan, but Israel took East Jerusalem before that could happen and found the scrolls in the museum storerooms.

The Jordanian claim does not extend to the well-known seven complete scrolls, which were purchased by Prof. Eliezer Sukenik and his son, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Yigael Yadin. Rather, it involves the tens of thousands of fragments discovered by archaeologists in the 1950s. They are pieces of some 900 different works written over a period of some 300 years at the end of the Second Temple period.

The IAA says that following the Jordanian move, the matter was being scrutinized, but declined to discuss the matter of future exhibitions.

But without the work of the four women in the conservation laboratory, Israel and Jordan would have nothing left to squabble over a few years from now. Innocent mistakes made in storing the scrolls led to their deterioration and disintegration over the years. Treiger and her colleagues are constantly fighting every source of damage to these 2,000-year-old treasures, including light, chemicals and heat.

Overseeing the efforts is Pnina Shor, head of Artifacts Treatment and Conservation at the authority. Shor is soon to be the first director of a special unit that will handle all the work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. "There is no other collection like this in the world, with such problems and such importance," she says.

The scrolls, dating from about 300 BCE to 70 CE, survived amazingly well in the dry conditions of the caves of Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The first scroll scholars, an international consortium of eight researchers, tried to piece together the fragments as best they could. "They were geniuses who did amazing work, but they were not aware of the physical needs of the material," Shor says.

Using adhesive tape, they stuck together what they believed to be related fragments and laid them between two pieces of glass. The scholars created a total of 1276 such plates. But adhesive tape, an amazing invention in the 1950s, became a conservation catastrophe for the scrolls. The chemicals in the adhesive ate into the organic material, stained it and wiped out letters. Later scholars also did damage. In the 1970s, they began to piece together fragments using rice paper and plastic material, which caused additional damage. Luckily, this process was halted and most of the fragments reamined within the glass plates.

The scroll conservation project began in 1991 under the auspices of the IAA. An international committee of experts determined a protocol, still in place, for the work on the scrolls in the laboratory established for that purpose. In 20 years, only about half the scrolls have been restored.

Most of the work on the scrolls is mechanical - careful scraping using a knife and tweezers - with some use of gentle chemicals. The reward is the revelation of words and letters written in Second Temple times.

At the table opposite Treiger is Asia Vexler's work station. She is actually retired, but the lab could not do without her amazing ability to deal with the most problematic fragments, those from the phylacteries found at Qumran. The scrolls of the phylacteries are written in tiny letters on fragments sometimes no bigger than a few millimeters. So Vexler has been asked to continue coming in once a week. She has spent the past 15 work-days removing a few millimeters of adhesive strips from a tiny inscribed segment.

When asked about the tools she uses in her work, Vexler says: "I have my hands, my nature, I can do things very precisely."

"It's a great deal of responsibility, and sometimes a frightening one," says Tanya Bitler, another conservator, who is now completing work on a relatively large fragment, about 10 x 10 centimeters, which is one of the sectarian writings, unknown before the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.

Shor has recently begun looking critically at the unit's own work. "We have been working for 20 years and we want to know we are not doing additional damage," she says. Shor called in Rome's Central Institute for Book Pathology. When its scientists asked for a piece of goat skin on which to conduct tests, none could be found - today's Torah scribes used cow skin. Finally, one Haredi Torah scribe in Jerusalem was found who works with goat skin, and he provided the necessary material.

The digitalizing of the scrolls, under preparation for three years, is to begin in about six months. The project, whose cost is estimated at more than $5 million, will use special photographic techniques, including infrared and full-spectrum photography, which are also expected to reveal hidden letters. The intent of the project, which will take five years, is to place everything on the Internet so scholars around the world can take part in the greatest puzzle of all - piecing together tens of thousands of fragments of some 900 different compositions.

"The scrolls survived for 2,000 years; our aim is for them to survive another 2,000 years, and then - dayenu [it will be enough for us]," Shor says.