Ancient DNA fingerprints help solve the Dead Sea Scroll puzzle
A new study is demonstrating how ancient animal DNA, extracted from Dead Sea Scroll parchments, can help with piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of disparate fragments found in the Judean desert. It's hoped the novel method will help generate a Dead Sea Scroll “genome” to aid scholars in decoding these mysterious artifacts.
Piecing together the thousands of parchment fragments discovered in the early 20th century has proved to be a major archeological challenge. Tel Avi University’s Oded Rechavi, corresponding author on a new study published in the journal Cell, suggests two big hurdles have stifled effective analysis of these 2,000 year old manuscripts.
“… first, most of them were not found intact but rather disintegrated into thousands of fragments, which 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,” says Rechavi. “Depending on the classification of each fragment, the interpretation of any given text could change dramatically."
The other problem is that for well over 50 years, since the first discovery of these parchments, fragments both real and counterfeit, have been traded through underground antiquity markets. As well as making it substantially more difficult to identify authentic scrolls, it is challenging to know exactly which archeological site some fragments originally came from, meaning it’s even harder to put the jigsaw puzzle pieces in their correct place.
Most of the ancient scrolls were written on animal skin parchments, leading Rechavi and his team to develop a DNA sequencing method determining the genetic signature of each individual fragment. As a proof-of-concept establishing the value of this novel paleogenomic technique, the study homed in on 26 specific scroll fragments, from which ancient DNA was extracted.
Noam Mizrahi, another author on the new study, suggests these initial DNA studies have already answered some long-debated questions. For example, a few analyzed fragments were suspected to come from the same scroll, a copy of the Book of Jeremiah. However, the DNA evidence revealed one fragment came from cow skin, while the others were sheep.
Since cows couldn’t be raised in the dry Judean desert, the evidence suggests this particular fragment most likely came from a different area. This means different versions of the same holy text were simultaneously being circulated.
"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," says Mizrahi. "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 team hopes to collect more samples from scroll fragments, ultimately creating a Dead Sea Scroll genomic database to help other researchers better piece together these disparate artifacts. It is also suggested this particular method can be applied to other ancient manuscript fragments that archeologists still puzzle over.
The study was published in the journal Cell.