Dead Sea Scrolls are being pieced back together using DNA ‘fingerprints’ lifted from the animal skins on which they were written 2,000 years ago

  • The scrolls are a collection of some 25,000 fragments of ancient manuscript
  • Among their texts are the earliest-known copies of books of the Hebrew Bible
  • They were first unearthed in the Qumran Caves, near the Dead Sea, in 1946
  • Piecing the texts together from fragments like a jigsaw has been challenging
  • DNA analysis can help and revealed that most scrolls are made of sheep skin 

The Dead Sea Scrolls are being pieced back together using DNA ‘fingerprints’ lifted from the animal skins on which they were written some 2,000 years ago.

The scrolls are a collection of more than 25,000 ancient manuscript fragments, among which can be found the oldest known copies of books of the Hebrew Bible.

They were first found in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea in 1946.

However, piecing the disparate fragments together has long proven an intricate puzzle, as scholars have had to rely primarily on their visual appearance.  

The researchers hope that extracting the ancient DNA of the animals that were used to make the parchments will offer more clues about how the pieces fit together.  

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The Dead Sea Scrolls are being pieced back together using DNA ‘fingerprints’ lifted from the animal skins on which they were written some 2,000 years ago. Pictured, a scroll fragment

‘The discovery of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made,’ said paper author and biologist Oded Rechavi of Israel’s Tel Aviv University.

‘However, it poses two major challenges: first, most of them were not found intact but rather disintegrated into thousands of fragments,’ he added.

This, he added, has meant that the pieces have ‘had to be sorted and pieced together with no prior knowledge on how many pieces have been lost forever, or — in the case of non-biblical compositions — how the original text should read’.

‘Depending on the classification of each fragment, the interpretation of any given text could change dramatically.’

The second challenge, he continued, comes from how most of the scrolls were acquired not directly from the Qumran caves, but through antiquity dealers.

As a result, it has not been clear where many of the fragments came from in the first place, he explained, making it more difficult to put them together and into their proper historical context.

Since their discovery — which occurred from 1946–1956 — scholars have been trying to reassembled the scroll fragments like a jigsaw puzzle, relying primarily on visible properties of the fragments to learn about their relationship with other pieces.

In their study, however, Professor Rechavi and colleagues delved deeper for clues to assist the recomposition process — extracting from the fragments the ancient DNA of the animals whose skins were used to make the scrolls.

The team’s forensic analysis — which combined this DNA evidence with an examination of the language of the texts themselves — enabled them to better work towards establishing the relationship between the fragments of the texts.

Alongside helping them to reconstruct the texts, the DNA sequencing revealed that the parchments were mostly made of sheep skin, which was not previously known.

Having determined this, the team reasoned that pieces made from the skin of the same sheep must be related — and that scrolls from closely related sheep were more likely to fit together than those from more distant sheep, or other species.

The scrolls are a collection of more than 25,000 ancient manuscript fragments, among which can be found the oldest known copies of books of the Hebrew Bible. They were first found in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea in 1946 

In one case, for example, the researchers found that two scroll fragments previously thought to belong together were in fact made from different animals — specifically, a sheep and a cow — suggesting that they did not fit together at all.

This striking example came from some of the oldest of the scrolls, which comprise different copies of the biblical book of Jeremiah.

‘Analysis of the text found on these Jeremiah pieces suggests that they not only belong to different scrolls, they also represent different versions of the prophetic book,’ said paper author and biblical studies expert Noam Mizrahi, also of Tel Aviv. 

‘The fact that the scrolls that are most divergent textually are also made of a different animal species is indicative that they originate at a different provenance.’

The ‘cow fragments’ were most likely written elsewhere, he added, because it would not have been possible at the time to raise cows in the Judean desert.

In their study, Professor Rechavi and colleagues delved deep for clues to assist the recomposition process — extracting from the fragments the ancient DNA of the animals whose skins were used to make the scrolls

According to the researchers, the fact that different versions of the book circulated in parallel suggests that ‘the holiness of the biblical book did not extend to its precise wording.’

They noted that this would have stood in contrast to the mutually exclusive texts that were adopted later by Judaism and Christianity.

‘This teaches us about the way this prophetic text was read at the time and also holds clues to the process of the text’s evolution,’ said Professor Rechavi.

He said that other highlights from the work include insight into the relationship between different copies of a non-biblical, liturgical work known as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, which has been found both in Qumran and Masada.

The team’s analysis revealed that the various copies found in the different Qumran Caves are closely related genetically — but that the Masada copy is distinct. 

This finding indicated that the work had a wide currency.

‘What we learn from the scrolls is probably relevant also to what happened in the country at the time,’ said Professor Mizrahi.

‘As the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice foreshadows revolutionary developments in poetic design and religious thinking, this conclusion has implications for the history of Western mysticism and Jewish liturgy.’

Since their discovery in the Qumran caves (one of which is pictured) from 1946–1956, scholars have been trying to reassembled the scroll fragments like a jigsaw puzzle, relying primarily on visible properties of the fragments to learn about their relationship with other pieces

The study also confirmed that some other fragments of uncertain origin likely came from places other than the Qumran caves, Professor Mizrahi added.

In one case, the DNA evidence suggested that a fragment of a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah — one of the most popular books in ancient Judea — likely came from another site entirely,but one which has yet to be identified.

Professor Rechavi said that although the DNA evidence has added to our understanding, it can only ‘reveal part of the picture and not solve all the mysteries.’

The researchers had to extract DNA from tiny amounts of materials — which they refer to as scroll ‘dust’ in certain cases — and noted that there are many scrolls that have yet to be sampled and others that simply cannot be, for fear it might ruin them.

However, they hope that more samples will be tested and added to the database to work toward a more complete Dead Sea Scroll ‘genome’.

The team believe that they can apply the same methods to any ancient artefact that contains enough intact DNA, or perhaps even other biological molecules.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Cell.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1946 and 1956 and date back 2,000 years

Discovered between 1946 and 1956, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 ancient manuscripts dating back to 2,000 years ago.

The texts include tends of thousands of parchment and papyrus fragments and in rare cases entire manuscripts.  

They contain parts of what is now known as the Hebrew Bible as well as a range of extra-biblical documents.

The scrolls were found by shepherd Muhammed Edh-Dhib as he searched for a stray among the limestone cliffs at Khirbet Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea in what was then British Mandate Palestine – now the West Bank.

The story goes that in a cave in the dark crevice of a steep rocky hillside, Muhammed hurled a stone into the dark interior and was startled to hear the sound of breaking pots.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which include tends of thousands of parchment and papyrus fragments (file photo), contain parts of what is now known as the Hebrew Bible. They also feature a range of extra-biblical documents

Venturing inside, the young Bedouin found a mysterious collection of large clay jars in which he found old scrolls, some wrapped in linen and blackened with age.

The texts have since been excavated by archaeologists, who are now racing to digitise their contents before they deteriorate beyond legibility.

The texts are of great historical and religious significance and include the earliest known surviving copies of biblical and extra-biblical documents, as well as preserving evidence of diversity in late Second Temple Judaism.

Dated to between 408BC and 318AD, they are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Nabataean, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus and bronze.

The scrolls are traditionally divided into three groups.

‘Biblical’ manuscripts, which are copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible comprise 40 per cent of the haul.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found by shepherd Muhammed Edh-Dhib as he searched for a stray among the limestone cliffs at Khirbet Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea

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