Dead Sea and DNA

jerusalem | Authorities are hoping that DNA testing of animal bones discovered in excavations at the Qumran plateau will reveal the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists believe the findings will resolve the debate sparked nearly half a century ago with the discovery of the biblical manuscripts in separate caves on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Prof. Oren Gutfield of Hebrew University, who participated in the excavations, is attempting to ascertain the relationship between the scrolls and their place of discovery.

“What we will do now are DNA tests to these bones in order to compare DNA results from these animals with DNA of the Dead Sea Scrolls parchment. A connection was never found between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the site itself, but if a match is found it means that the people who lived in Qumran actually prepared the scrolls from animals at the site itself,” Gutfield said.

The seven bone deposits of mules eaten and buried inside cleaning pots and storage jars by the Qumran community will undergo DNA testing this week.

Archaeologists will compare the findings of the bones with the DNA of the scrolls conducted over the past five years. Also, the Qumran storage pots resemble those found inside the caves with the scrolls.

According to Gutfield, “If the bone deposits, which are unique to the plateau, match with the scrolls, we will be able to resolve one of the greatest debates of the archaeological world today: Do the scrolls originate from within the Qumran community or were they transported to the caves from outside before the siege of the Romans in 66 CE?”

There are two schools of thought regarding the origin of the scrolls. Most scholars, led by archaeologist Roland de Voux, who directed the excavations at the plateau in the 1950s, claim that the 900 scrolls originate from both within Qumran and also from contributions of individuals joining the community.

A group of dissidents argues that the site must be disconnected from the scrolls. The manuscripts, written by high priests, were only transported to the caves immediately before the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Hanan Eshel, associate professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, suggests that the majority of the manuscripts, although not all, are sectarian and were written by community members. He suggests that evidence for this thesis is rooted within the text of the scrolls themselves.

“The content of the scrolls prove that they [the dissidents] are wrong. They [the scrolls] describe the rules and workings of the Qumran community. Even more so, they speak out against the Jerusalem establishment and the priests of Jerusalem themselves,” Eshel said.

“I can’t understand why some people would deny a connection between the scrolls found in the cave and the site itself. In addition to the proximity of the caves to the site, one must go through the site to reach the caves. If a match is found, it will prove the connection once and for all.”