The Dead Sea Scrolls have been named one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century and now, they’re in Denver. These manuscripts were written between 150 B.C. and 70 A.D., making parts of the collection more than 2,000 years old. They are some of the oldest remaining documents of written human history and now you can see them at The Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
“These writings have erected societies perceptions of morality and justice for 2,000 years, they’ve molded leaders and affected government throughout time, ” explained chair of the department of classics and humanities for San Diego State Univerity, Risa Levitt. “The majority of the scrolls are nonbiblical and represent everything from commentary to prayer and legal writings. They represent the thoughts of the authors, who sought to address questions like ‘where do we fit in?’ ‘How should we live our lives?’ ‘How and when will the world end?’ ‘What will happen to us?’ So, you see, it’s kind of amazing that things don’t really change in the way we think.”
Despite their significance, these scrolls have been lost for centuries. Between 1947 and 1956 archeologists and local Bedouins discovered nearly 900 scroll fragments throughout 11 caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea — some of which represent what would become the book of Isaiah, Deuteronomy and Psalms. The scrolls transcend cultures and religions. They represent the thoughts and opinions of prophets Ezekial, Jeremiah and Daniel and link three of the worlds major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). Becuase of this, they are highly protected and intensely preserved.
“The scrolls are kept in the same climate in which they were found,” stated spokesperson for the Israel Antiquities Authority Yoli Schwartz. “We match the humidity, salt content and temperature of the caves that they were discovered in. Also, to properly preserve them we rotate the scrolls after three months. They have to rest for five years after being exposed. So after the three month viewing period, they will be sent back to their home in Israel to be stored properly. We quite literally treat the scrolls as holy documents because we want to preserve them for generations to come.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls are in high demand. The team at the DMNS has spent years in communication with the Israel Antiquities Authority (the main authority responsible for preserving and promoting Israeli antiques) to get them here. Finally, after much deliberation, they’re here as the seventh stop of the Dead Sea Scrolls US Tour.
The tour began in New York City and hit six other spots including Los Angeles before landing in Denver. The exhibit opens March 16 and will remain at the museum until September 2018, rotating once in June to preserve the integrity of the scrolls. Aside from featuring some of the oldest texts known to man, the exhibit features more than 600 artifacts from the ancient Middle East and one scroll fragment that has never before been seen by the public.
“There’s one new scroll that we’ve released to the public for the first time here in Denver. It’s about purification, and how to live in a pure way,” archeologist and senior curator of the iron age & Persian periods Debora Ben Ami explained.”The jars belonged to King Hezekiah from 701 BC,” “And that stone right there is from the top of a pillar of an ancient palace. It’s actually the largest remaining column piece from an ancient palace ever discovered.”
Because of the delicate nature of these artifacts, Ben Ami is one of the only people in the world to handle the Dead Sea Scrolls. Lucky for us, she came to Denver to give us insight to the exhibit.
“With these artifacts, and with the dead sea scrolls, we’ve discovered tangible items that paint everything we know of history in a better context. Sometimes finding ancient texts can have a political twist, but in this case we’ve discovered actual objects that prove the legitimacy of the text. Everything comes together,” she said.
The exhibit spans four rooms. Beginning with a video overview of the discovery and journey of these artifacts and scrolls and ending with a mock-western wall, that features one stone from the original wall, for guests to interact with. From the entrance video to ancient alters and arrowheads dating back to 701 BC and jars once owned by kings — visitors are taken on a journey through time before coming face to face with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are displayed at the end of the exhibit.
“As you enter the room of the scrolls, you’ll see a shift in atmosphere,” explained Ben Ami. “In the center, you’ll see the 10 scrolls. These scrolls are surrounded by four walls that connect differently to the story of the scrolls. If you travel from one wall to the next you’ll see the story of the scrolls through time and how they’ve influenced modern day religion.”
After passing the Dead Sea Scrolls guests will enter a mock western-wall display, with blank paper and pencils available for you to interact with the wall as one would in the Old City of Jerusalem. These 10 scrolls on display will be available for public viewing until June when they will then be replaced with 10 new scrolls for preservation sake.
Landing an internationally significant exhibit such as The Dead Sea Scrolls is not an easy task. It took years of communication between the experts at both DMNS and the Israel Antiquities Authority to make it happen. Traveling from their home base in Israel, the representatives of the IAA brought their deep knowledge and understanding of these ancient texts to Denver. From archeologists who have been personally involved in excavating the artifacts to curators and spokeswomen, the figures behind this once in a lifetime exhibit are truly experts in their craft.
“I have spent my entire life conserving and studying these scrolls,” said chemist and conservator Yana Frumkin. “And in Israel we are constantly discovering more and more of our history.”
This team of professionals has cultivated a once in a lifetime exhibit for the people of Denver to experience. And while it took some time to bring to fruition, the result was well worth the wait.
Denver will likely be the last stop on the Dead Sea Scrolls US Tour. And once they leave they are not likely to return. You can catch this exhibit beginning Friday, March 16 through September 3 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The space is open from 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available at the door or on their site, here.
All Photos by Kyle Cooper.