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Analytical Chemistry

Analyzing The Dead Sea Scrolls’ Provenance

Cultural Analysis: Scientists think that X-ray fluorescence could identify the geographical origin of these ancient texts

August 11, 2011

DEAD SEA MYSTERY
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Credit: Newscom
The bromine-to-chlorine ratio in the parchment of the Dead Sea Scrolls may help scholars pinpoint the texts' geographical origin.
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Credit: Newscom
The bromine-to-chlorine ratio in the parchment of the Dead Sea Scrolls may help scholars pinpoint the texts' geographical origin.

An X-ray fluorescence analytical technique may help scholars settle a decades-long archaeological debate: Were the multitude of Dead Sea Scroll texts written near the Dead Sea or just stored in caves nearby? This technique could provide an answer without harming the valuable Hebrew documents that have been degrading rapidly since their discovery in the 1940s and 50s, its developers say.

The debate over the Scrolls’ origins has filled “books and books,” because they mark an important milestone in Jewish history, says Ioanna Mantouvalou, a physicist at Berlin’s Technical University, in Germany. But scholars have been understandably unwilling to resolve the debate with destructive scientific techniques, she adds.

Mantouvalou and her colleagues, including Ira Rabin at Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing in Berlin, developed a non-invasive technique to determine the origin of the parchment on which most of the Scrolls were written.

Ancient writers produced parchment by soaking animal skin in water. Because water in different parts of the world has characteristic bromine-to-chlorine ratios, the researchers wondered whether they could easily measure this ratio in the Scrolls’ parchments and thus provide a geographical fingerprint. Indeed, the team found that portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometers could quantify the ratio in a non-destructive manner (Anal. Chem., DOI: 10.1021/ac2011262).

The researchers used the analytical technique to study about 25 different Dead Sea Scroll texts and plan to publish these results in the next few months.

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