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Museum of Science collaborates with Brandeis on Dead Sea Scrolls

Published: January 24, 2013
Section: Front Page, News

The Museum of Science has announced an exhibit centered around the Dead Sea Scrolls. Brandeis has been collaborating with the museum since August and will be providing opportunities for students to become involved with the exhibit once it opens.

“It’s really quite incredible that we are the one university the museum is working with for the project,” Professor Marc Brettler (NEJS), chair of the museum committee said. While the Museum of Science has relationships with many of the universities in the Boston area, Brandeis is the only school with which they are communicating on the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. The Israeli Antiquities Authority, as the institution lending the scrolls, has also been in negotiations. While many of the plans are still tentative, Brandeis’ participation has already greatly influenced the exhibit. “A number of us at Brandeis have worked with the museum, advising them concerning various aspects of the exhibit,” Brettler said.

“The museum had some role in choosing which Dead Sea Scrolls would actually be available for the public to see. I and some others advised the museum concerning that,” Brettler said.

The exhibit will feature 20 scrolls and fragments of scrolls total, as well as many artifacts from ancient Israel. “One of the areas we pushed, especially since they’re a museum of science, and I know which scrolls have more scientific material in them, I pushed them in that direction, so the exhibit would fit with museum’s goal,” he said.

“There are astronomical texts, or texts that deal with astronomy among the scrolls,” one of which will be featured in the exhibit. “So that’s science in antiquity,” said Brettler. The exhibit will also highlight the science of the scrolls itself—the technology of archaeological preservation has made huge advances since the scrolls were initially discovered in 1947.

“Especially because the exhibit is at the Museum of Science, one of the things that interests us a lot concerns science in the scrolls and science being used to preserve or decipher the scrolls,” Benjamin Federlin ’14, undergraduate representative to the committee said.

“Some of the mapping technology that has been developed by NASA in the jet-propulsion laboratory is being used for reading the scrolls, because sometimes you literally need to connect dots, you need to figure out what is a shadow, what is part of the writing, what is an ancient stain,” Brettler explained. “Some techniques that have been developed for mapping the earth from outer space end up being very useful in terms of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Science has made archaeology much better able to understand its findings, says Brettler. “Thirty years ago, people could have said, ‘Oh, this is a bowl that may have contained such-and-such.’ Now there are various techniques that can be used that we can really understand what these ancient containers contained. Scientific analysis of pottery makes archaeologists able to understand more about diets and changes in diet.”

“[The Scrolls] a great example of the leaps that have been made, and we have some faculty who could actually talk about that,” Federlin said.

Chemistry and physics professors on the committee bring their skills to the committee. “It’s a wide range of people because we’re hoping to get as many people from Brandeis involved in as many ways as possible,” said Federlin, “Especially the science connection, since it will be at the Museum of Science.”

Brettler says the committee has brought together disciplines that don’t often meet. “One of the wonderful things about chairing the committee that works on this is that it combine humanists and scientists and social scientists, and I think it’s really a wonderful opportunity for breaking down some of the disciplinary divides.”

“That gap is something we’re working on bridging,” said Federlin, with potential lectures at Brandeis about the astronomy of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Lectures about the chemistry and science behind archaeology and preservation may follow.

Brettler finds it easy to work with other departments and admires the collaborative environment that the committee has created. “I think as intelligent people, we appreciate each other’s disciplines, we know what it takes to really master a discipline, and when someone has real control over another discipline and can help us in our field, it’s a wonderful thing,” he said.

He hopes that the model the committee has created will be followed after the exhibit has finished, and that the university will benefit from more interdisciplinary studies.

Hiatt representatives have been working with the Museum of Science to secure positions for Brandeis students as interpreters at the exhibit. Interpreters answer the questions of patrons in the exhibit, or walk through with, according to Brettler, “those rolling carts with various artifacts, that are related to the exhibit and you explain the way they work.”

“Brandeis has this resource of about 800 artifacts that are here on campus,” Federlin said, referring to the Classical Artifact Research Collection (CLARC), which may lend its own stock of artifacts pertaining to life in Ancient Israel to the museum for the exhibit.

“The scrolls themselves are really little. They’re like post-it notes, scrolls is a misleading term,” Federlin said. “A lot of [the exhibit] is about … life in first and second century Israel.”

“Some artifacts from CLARC might end up being at the museum, and that is officially part of the exhibit,” said Brettler, as well as creating a “teaser” for the exhibit in Mandel. “It’s also possible that some of the artifacts from the Classics collection might be shown in a showcase in Mandel,” according to Brettler, “There too, students will walk by, they’ll get a sense of what these related artifacts are, and other students will have an opportunity to really write up these artifacts. So it’s a great opportunity for many people.”

Students will have the opportunity to do write-ups of the artifacts being displayed here at Brandeis, as well as go to on-campus lectures about archaeological preservation

“I and others hope that the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient Israel will be a hot topic on campus, so there will be various lectures that will be given at Brandeis and elsewhere, we’re hoping to have various exhibits at Brandeis concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Brettler and the committee advised the museum on which scrolls to bring, including some of the scientific texts that the scrolls boast.

The scrolls do not often leave Israel, and Boston is their last stop before returning to their homeland. They’re extremely fragile, and can only be exposed to light for brief periods of time before beginning to deteriorate. The six-month exhibit, opening in May of this year will feature 10 scrolls for three months each, rotating the stock half way through. The exhibit boasts 20 scrolls in total. “I encourage people to go twice and see the different scrolls,” said Brettler.

Discovered in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were written mostly in Hebrew, but also Aramaic and Greek. “Some of them are texts of what later became the Bible,” said Brettler, “Some of them are books like Biblical books which never made it into the Bible. Some of them are called Sectarian works,” which deal with the rites and traditions of Jewish sects settled in the Dead Sea area.

“So how that group was run, that group was convinced they were living at the end of times, so they even prepared a military document called ‘The War Scroll’ on how they should behave at the end of times, in terms of the battles.”

The scrolls exist in ancient fragments, with writing indecipherable to the naked eye. “Most of them were found in a fragmentary condition. We don’t have them as a whole.” According to Brettler, however, some documents exist in more than one copy, from different places and different scrolls, which help scholars “get a sense of what the whole scroll looked like.”

The church preserved a few of the scrolls through transcription, in secondary and tertiary languages. Even if only pieces of the original scroll remains, archaeologists and scholars can fit their found pieces into the translated whole and have a concept of how it originally looked.

The exhibit will run for a total of six months, beginning in mid-May. Many events are scheduled to occur during the summer and into next fall. While many of the events are not yet set in stone, the University will continue to work with the museum to provide opportunities for student involvement in the exhibit and related events on campus.