Local Life

A once-in-a-lifetime reading assignment

Dead Sea Scrolls make first visit to Denver

Posted 4/2/18

At just a cursory glance, one could almost be forgiven for being unimpressed by the Dead Sea Scrolls. After all, they appear as indecipherable writing — unless one speaks Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek …

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Local Life

A once-in-a-lifetime reading assignment

Dead Sea Scrolls make first visit to Denver

Posted

At just a cursory glance, one could almost be forgiven for being unimpressed by the Dead Sea Scrolls. After all, they appear as indecipherable writing — unless one speaks Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek — on scraps of paper to the untrained eye.

But when one considers these papers survived for more than 2,000 years and contain excerpts from some of history’s most important documents, they start to look a lot more impressive.

For the first time, Denver residents have the opportunity to not only examine some of the scrolls up close, but also hundreds of other artifacts from the same era in Israel at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

“People say the discovery of the scrolls was one of the great archaeological discoveries of the 20th century,” said the museum’s archaeology curator, Dr. Steve Nash. “You can take away 20th century and replace it with all time.”

The scrolls can be seen at the museum, 2001 Colorado Blvd. in Denver, through Sept. 3. This is the first time these documents have stopped in the Mile High City — the closest they’ve come before was Salt Lake City in Utah. The exhibition is organized by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

These oldest-known biblical documents were discovered in 1947 by young Bedouin goatherders, who wandered into a cave along the shore of the Dead Sea, near the site of the ancient settlement of Qumran. They found an assortment of clay jars, inside of which were scrolls wrapped in linen.

Over the next nine years, archaeologists and Bedouins searched the surrounding caves. After extensive excavation, more than 900 remarkably preserved scrolls were recovered.

Before the discoveries of the scrolls, Nash said, the oldest biblical texts were from about 900 in the Middle Ages.

For the exhibit, the scrolls are presented within a massive exhibit case featuring carefully regulated individual chambers, along with the full English translation. Ten scrolls will be displayed when the exhibition opens. Because of strict preservation requirements, 10 different scrolls will arrive halfway through the run to replace the 10 initial scrolls.

Each rotation includes a scroll that has never before been on public display.

For this first rotation, the never-before-seen scroll is Tohorot (Purities) A. This text focuses on ritual purity, a common topic of the Hebrew Bible.

“If guests look only at the scrolls, they’re only getting one perspective on one religion at the time,” Nash said. “The goal is to give some context to what was happening at the time, to show how the writers of the scrolls were influenced, and the world they influenced.”

More than 600 artifacts from the ancient Middle East give visitors a background in the historic traditions and beliefs that continue to impact world cultures today.

Objects on display include inscriptions and seals, weapons, stone carvings, terra cotta figurines, remains of religious symbols, coins, shoes, textiles, mosaics, ceramics, jewelry and a three-ton stone from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, believed to have fallen in 70 CE (Common Era).

“Just like at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, guests are leaving notes and prayers in the cracks. When the exhibits is finished, they’ll be sent to Jerusalem, to the real wall,” Nash said. “There’s also a live feed where people can watch what’s going on at the Western Wall in Jerusalem while they see the stone here.”

Unlike many exhibits that come through the museum, what each person takes away from seeing the scrolls depends on their own beliefs. But there’s no contesting the impact these documents have had on the world and its three enormous faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“This exhibit is really about the epic sweep of humanity,” Nash said. “History is always more complicated, messier and more interesting.”

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