Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Loll et al. 2019 - Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll Collection Scientific Research and Analysis: Final Report

The Museum of the Bible has posted the well-illustrated final report of Colette Loll et al., which concluded unanimously that all of the MOTB DSS-like fragments were modern forgeries. This confirms the suspicions of many researchers, offering considerable new material evidence to the discussion.
Most prominently, all of the inscribed fragments have irregularities with the ink, such as:

  1. Ink on top of delaminated skin, where the top layer of the skin has flaked off.
  2. Ink flowing down the edges of fragments and into cracks.
  3. Ink on top of accrued mineral deposits.
  4. Ink "feathering" or bleeding outside the boundaries of the letters.

The report also confirms the observations of others that the letters often follow the contours of the broken edges and cracks of the fragments. Another noteworthy oddity is that some of the fragments seem to have been ruled with a greasy white substance before inscription. 

The writing surfaces also seem inconsistent with genuine DSS. All but one (MOTB.SCR.004742 [Leviticus]) are written on leather, characterized by: interwoven collagen fibers; a thick, spongy texture (now brittle); flexibility and resilience (again, now brittle); bumpy surface from the grain and fibrous surface on the skin side; and the absorption of tannins through the entire skin as part of the preparation process. In contrast, genuine scrolls are (almost?) always written on parchment, characterized by: parallel aligned collagen fibers; thin, relatively stiff texture; smooth surfaces due to scraping; and sometimes a surface treatment with tannins.

The leather was apparently soaked in a lime solution to help remove the hair, a technology which is supposed to have been introduced in the 4th cent. CE. This is interesting, since one questionable Azusa Pacific University fragment is said to have been radiocarbon dated to the 1st cent. CE, and it would be easy to explain how the forger got access to similar material from this time. The report suggests that several holes in certain fragments may have been human-created and resemble leather used for Roman shoes, so the leather may have originally been created for a similar usage. Heavy mineral deposits on the surfaces (including under the ink) suggests that the leather was recovered from an ancient archeological context, though it cannot be dated precisely.

The report gives a detailed analysis of the material of the leather and sediments. On each of the fragments there was an amber-colored protein coating (probably animal skin glue), but it is not clear whether this was part of the preparation of the parchment or natural gelatinization. The report notes suspicious striations on one fragment resulting from brush strokes, which apparently applied a transparent substance to the surface. The ink is carbon-based and uses gum Arabic as a binder; the team apparently did not detect any egg-white, unlike the ink in the Schøyen ink well. The report also suggests that someone deposited a layer of sediment consistent with the Dead Sea region on the surface of the fragments, possibly while the ink was still wet.

Though I am no expert on the material side, and there are some material problems with the leather, it seems clear that the irregularities of the ink are the primary indicators for the team's decision. To quote a helpful and succinct summary:

"Aside from unambiguous conservation materials, no anachronistic or anomalous materials were identified in the studied fragments. The state of degradation and minerology of the parchment samples suggests they may old or ancient, however, physical clues, such as the application of ink over delaminated support material and sediment, as well as cracks in several fragments, suggests that much or all of the ink may have been applied more recently (111)."

Indeed, the fact that the ink and script are so problematic for each of the fragments is a strong indication that all of these fragments are modern forgeries on ancient skins.


See also the discussions by Christopher Rollston, Sidnie Crawford, and Michael Langlois. Contrast the following statement by Emanuel Tov cited in a National Geographic article:

"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 base line 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."

While I agree that it would be helpful to do similar tests with authentic DSS for comparison, the combined evidence with regard to the MOTB DSS-like fragments collected to date does seem to me to be quite compelling. These fragments are almost certainly modern forgeries.

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