GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan - A dozen Dead Sea Scrolls - the ancient manuscripts considered among the most important discoveries in modern archaeology - go on display tomorrow at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, where the rare exhibit will continue through June 1.
Rather than showcase the papyrus fragments in a typical museum setting, officials decided to start visitors off with a visit inside a replica of a cave in Qumran - where the scrolls were accidentally found by a Bedouin shepherd boy in 1947 - as a way of recapturing some of the excitement of the initial discovery, museum director Tim Chester said.
“Like many historical objects, the scrolls can't speak on their own; they need a context in which to be fully appreciated,” Mr. Chester said. “It's not just what the scrolls mean to people today, it's what they meant to the people who created them, and the hopes and aspirations of the people who put them away - for what purpose we still don't know - and the drama of them being unearthed.”
The brittle scrolls found in the Israeli caves included some of the earliest surviving texts of the books of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament.
Between 1947 and 1967, 28 nearly complete scrolls and 100,000 fragments of another 900 scrolls were discovered in a series of caves in the Qumran area of Israel, about 12 miles southeast of Jerusalem. The scrolls were written on parchment in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek between 250 B.C. and 70 A.D. and contain parts of all the books of the Old Testament except Esther.
The documents also included many nonbiblical writings such as community rules adopted by the Essenes, the strict monastic brotherhood of Jews who most experts believe wrote the scrolls. Scholars believe the Essenes hid the scrolls away in caves overlooking the Dead Sea to protect them from Roman invaders around 68 A.D.
Among the items to be shown in Grand Rapids are portions of 12 different scrolls, including:
w Exodus 6:25-7:19 - written in paleo-Hebrew script dating to the First Temple Period, 1006-586 B.C.
w Psalms - The largest scroll in the exhibit, measuring 33 3/4 by 71/4 inches, consists of parts of 41 biblical psalms and previously unknown Apocryphal psalms, written between 30 and 50 A.D.
w Pseudo-Ezekiel - A reworking of the Old Testament book of Ezekiel written in the 2nd Century B.C.
The scrolls are rarely exhibited outside of Israel and the Michigan exhibit, originally planned to be part of a three-city tour, will be the only one of its kind, museum spokesman Pete Daly said.
“It was originally conceived as a traveling show, but the two other partners that were going to coordinate the exhibit dropped out,” Mr. Chester said.
The Israel Antiquities Authority had planned to bring the exhibit to Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics, with a second stop in Houston, Mr. Daly said. Israeli officials looked for a third U.S. site for the scrolls, and the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, which operates five facilities, ultimately was selected.
But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused Salt Lake City officials to opt out of the exhibit, Mr. Daly said, and soaring insurance forced Texas museum officials to drop the show.
The Grand Rapids museum did some “soul searching,” Mr. Daly said, and decided to continue with its plans for the scrolls.
“We were sufficiently far enough away, timewise,” Mr. Chester said, “to be able to make the shifts necessary to assume the work of three institutions.”
In addition to the scrolls, the exhibit will feature 80 artifacts from the Essene era including storage jars, a pottery inkwell, coins, leather sandals and a wooden comb.
Officials at the Van Andel Museum Center have enhanced the building's electronic security to protect the scrolls, Mr. Chester said, and have worked hard to provide the finest “microclimates” to preserve the fragile documents.
“These items are 2,000 years old and a good deal of the material is organic,” Mr. Chester said. “At the age of 2,000 years, it does not want to be whole anymore. The ability to preserve it forever is compromised by the material's carbon basis. It's a constant battle and ultimately a losing battle, but we will forestall it as much as possible. Hopefully for thousands of years more.”
In addition to displaying the ancient artifacts, the museum plans a full schedule of complementary programs including lectures, interactive displays, storytelling sessions, workshops, and a multimedia video in its planetarium.
One notable event is set for April 1 when Dr. Emanuel Tov, editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls official publication series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, will present a public lecture titled “Publishing the Scrolls: An Editor's Viewpoint.”