When I was writing God’s Library, I was constantly confronted with how little I knew about several domains of knowledge that are important for the study of ancient manuscripts. One of these areas is the more technical chemical make-up of writing surfaces and inks.
This branch of manuscript studies has come into the news in the last few years in relation to cases of forgery, such as the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment and the fake Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible and other collections. One aspect of the media coverage of these episodes that has been troubling (to others and to me) is the rhetoric of “science” having detected the forgeries, when in fact a combination of various skills and bodies of knowledge contributed to the detection of the forgeries.
Over the last week, I went back through the Final Report (hereafter “the Report“) on the Museum of the Bible “Dead Sea Scrolls” produced by Art Fraud Insights. I wanted to think more about Emanuel Tov’s objections to the Report, briefly summarized in the National Geographic article that announced the findings:
“I will not say that there are no unauthentic fragments among the MOB fragments, but in my view, their inauthenticity as a whole has still not been proven beyond doubt. This doubt is due to the fact that similar testing has not been done on undisputed Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts in order to provide a baseline for comparison, including the fragments from the Judean Desert sites that are later than Qumran. The report expects us to conclude that abnormalities abound without demonstrating what is normal.”
I still do not agree with that (triple-negative!) first sentence. I have been convinced that these pieces are forgeries, but it is not because of the “testing” provided in the Report (the chemical analyses and so forth). Rather, again, it is the combination of several factors, starting most crucially with the lack of secure archaeological provenance. Beyond that, it is the kinds of arguments that Kipp Davis, Michael Langlois, and others have put forward about the irregularities in the script, suspicious correspondences with modern printed editions, the ink being inscribed on top of sediments on the writing surface, the ink falling into damaged surfaces or over the torn edges of fragments, etc. That is to say, it is not so much the chemical make-up of the ink or the accretions on the writing surfaces as it is the cumulative arguments about scribal activity and the unprovenanced nature of the fragments that makes the case for forgery. Nevertheless, there is an important point in the last sentence of Prof. Tov’s statement: We should have a better idea of “what is normal” when it comes to the materials analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The authors of the Report seem to have been relatively cautious when making comparisons between the MOTB fragments and the main corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls (“consistent…with other studied DSS fragments,” p. 110; “have been identified in a study of a Qumran scroll,” p. 122, etc., my italics). That is to say, they have not made broad generalizations but instead referred to specific studies. The studies cited in the Report vary in terms of their sample size.
For the skins themselves, there is a foundational study that is based on a reasonably broad set of evidence:
- J.B. Poole and R. Reed, “The Preparation of Leather and Parchment by the Dead Sea Scrolls Community,” Technology and Culture 3 (1962), 1-26
I have not found a statement of exactly how many samples the authors used in their study (at one point, however, they mention “forty scroll and leather fragments from Cave 4”). Reed had been given at least 51 small pieces of Dead Sea Scrolls skins that were thought to be uninscribed (just a few days ago Joan Taylor has reported her team’s discovery that some of the fragments were in fact not blank but contained legible text). There are perhaps about 900 different Scrolls represented among the surviving Dead Sea Scrolls fragments (though some of these are papyrus), so the Reed fragments are a small but not insignificant group. Reed’s collection of fragments has also served as a partial basis for several other subsequent studies:
- Ira Rabin, “Archaeometry of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Dead Sea Discoveries 20 (2013), 124-142 (this study also included the Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book)
- Marina Bicchieri, Armida Sodo, Ira Rabin, Anka Kohl, and Giovanna Piantanida, “New Results in Dead Sea Scrolls Non-destructive Characterisation: Evidence of Different Parchment Manufacture in the Fragments from Reed Collection,” Journal of Cultural Heritage 32 (2018), 22-29
- Ioanna Mantouvalou, Timo Wolff, Oliver Hahn, Ira Rabin, Lars Lühl, Marcel Pagels, Wolfgang Malzer, and Birgit Kanngiesser, “3D Micro-XRF for Cultural Heritage Objects: New Analysis Strategies for the Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Analytical Chemistry 83, 16 (2011), 6308-6315.
- Timo Wolff, Ira Rabin, Ioanna Mantouvalou, Birgit Kanngießer, Wolfgang Malzer, Emanuel Kindzorra, and Oliver Hahn, “Provenance Studies on Dead Sea Scrolls Parchment by Means of Quantitative Micro-XRF,” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 402 (2012), 1493-1503 (this study also included materials from the Shrine of the Book)
When it comes to other specific aspects of the skins and the ink of the Scrolls, however, it seems like we have a much more limited basis for comparison. These are the studies of non-disputed Dead Sea Scrolls cited in the Report (I have added the sample sizes for each study in bold):
- Michele Derrick, “Evaluation of the State of Degradation of Dead Sea Scroll Samples Using Ft-Ir- Spectroscopy,” Book and Paper Group Annual 10 (1991), 49-65 (9 samples)
- Yoram Nir-El and Magen Broshi, “The Black Ink of the Qumran Scrolls,” Dead Sea Discoveries 3 (1996), 157- 67 (11 samples)
- Yoram Nir-El and Magen Broshi, “The Red Ink of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Archaeometry 38 (1996), 97-102 (4 samples; there are only 4 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments with red ink)
- Ira Rabin, Oliver Hahn, Timo Wolff, Emanuel Kindzorra, Admir Masic, Ulrich Schade, and Gisela Weinberg, “Characterization Of The Writing Media Of The Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Holistic Qumran: Trans-disciplinary Research of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. Jan Gunneweg, Annemie Adriaens, and Joris Dik; Leiden: Brill, 2010), 123-134 (1 sample, plus samples of modern materials)
- Harry Sobel and Henry Ajie, “Modification in Amino Acids of Dead Sea Scroll Parchments,” Free Radical Biology and Medicine 13 (1992), 701-702 (apparently 1 sample, cut into 3 pieces)
- Arie Wallert, “Deliquescence and Recrystallization of Salts in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Archaeological Conservation and its Consequences (ed. A. Roy and P. Smith; London: International Institute for Conservation, 1996), 198-201 (not available to me for consultation)
Clearly, we could have a larger basis of evidence for studies of writing surfaces and inks, as it seems the holdings of Dead Dead Scrolls by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) appear to be a largely untapped resource in this regard. I asked Ira Rabin of the University of Hamburg about the prospects for such a broad study. According to her:
“It is crucial to obtain an overview of the composition of the writing surfaces and the inks of the majority of the material found in the Judean desert. I hope that one day the IAA will allow it. Admittedly, it would be a laborious and time consuming undertaking because it requires specific high-resolution equipment, expertise to run it, and a lot of patience. On the other hand, the information we would gain is of such tremendous historical importance that recognition of the forgeries would be a mere by-product of such knowledge.”
It would be ideal to have a database containing materials analyses not only for the Dead Sea Scrolls but for all ancient manuscripts. Several non-destructive technologies are already being used by different projects. At the University of Hamburg, there is “Understanding Written Artifacts” cluster (especially the project History of Writing: Black Inks and Writing Surfaces). The project has already built up a good deal of knowledge about materials used in the production of Jewish manuscripts:
- Ira Rabin, “Building a Bridge from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Mediaeval Hebrew Manuscripts,” in Jewish Manuscript Cultures. New Perspectives (ed. I. Wandrey; Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2017), 309-322.
- Roman Schuetz, Janille M. Maragh, James C. Weaver, Ira Rabin, Admir Masic, “The Temple Scroll: Reconstructing an Ancient Manufacturing Practice,” Science Advances 5 (2019): eaaw7494
Another project, PAThs (Tracking Papyrus and Parchment Paths: An Archaeological Atlas of Coptic Literature), based at Sapienza University of Rome contains a component of technical ink research on Coptic manuscripts. Some of their results were published earlier this year:
- Tea Ghigo, Ira Rabin, Paola Buzi, “Black Egyptian Inks in Late Antiquity: New Insights on their Manufacture and Use,” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2020) 12:70
The organized accumulation of this kind of data is a very welcome development for all of us who work on ancient manuscripts. Of course, as forgers grow in sophistication, a database like this could become an asset for producers of forgeries, a kind of guide book for making more convincing fakes. But this is the nature of the symbiotic relationship between forgers and scholars: As forgers produce more advanced products, scholars must respond with even more exacting examinations of unprovenanced pieces (if they wish to use unprovenanced materials at all, a question that is looming on the horizon for all students of ancient manuscripts).