Analysis of Microscopic Material and the Stitching of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a Preliminary Study

Azriel Gorski

The application of microscopic and forensic techniques to archaeology can recover information about human activities, which is present in the archaeological record and which is currently not being recovered.

A basic tenet in the forensic sciences is the Locard Exchange Principle which states that "Every contact leaves traces. Whenever any two objects come into contact with one another they affect one another in some way" (Robertson and Vignaux 1995). The natu re of the effect and the particles exchanged or deposited will depend upon the nature or the contact and the nature of the objects. The evidence of these contacts is not a result of a conscious thought, and most times one is not even aware that evidence o f the contact is carried away from it due to the small size of the particles exchanged.

Following on the Locard Principle, forensic scientists have developed an arsenal of techniques to obtain data from small, and microscopic amounts of material. The purpose of these analyses is to obtain interpretable information that can shed light on an e vent or series of events. These events normally have at their core human actions.

This study is a preliminary study to determine if microscopic traces are present on the Dead Sea Scrolls and if trace evidence and other forensic science techniques can provide new information. Two types of examinations will be attempted. One will be of m icroscopic traces associated with the scrolls. The other will be an examination of the stitching.

Microscopic Traces

The definition of what one is trying to determine is desirable before an analysis. I will attempt to answer two very basic but unconsidered questions. Are there microscopic particles associated with the scrolls and if there are, can these particles be cha racterized utilizing analyses based on the light microscope.

The material selected was pieces of cellophane tape that had been removed by the Dead Sea Scrolls laboratory of the Rockerfeller museum. At the time of their discovery, the scholars studying the scrolls used cellophane tape to join together the many fragm ents of the manuscript. The glue side of these pieces was scanned utilizing a stereo microscope at various magnifications between 6.3 and 40 diameters. Fibers and microscopic particles of apparent interest were manually removed, and analyzed utilizing a p olarized microscope at magnifications between 100 and 630 diameters.

In addition to the cellophane tape pieces, which were felt to be heavily contaminated by particles of modern origin, two jars associated with the scrolls and on display at the Shrine of the Book of the Israel Museum were chosen. These jars were selected b ecause they had been found whole, rather than reassembled from fragments which had been washed, and had covers on them. The two jars were overturned over clean paper, taped lightly, and the material falling out of the jars onto the paper was analyzed. The analysis followed the same stereo and polarized light microscope scheme outlined above.

On the cellophane tape pieces many particles and fibers were found. Not every particle or fiber was characterized, but the following classes of material were identified: a) hair fragments, human and wool; b) pollen particles; and c) synthetic and natural fibers. Some of the wool fibers were dyed. The natural fibers consisted mainly of flax and cotton, with some of the cotton being dyed.

Many particles and fibers were retrieved from the jars. Again, not every fiber or particle was characterized. Hair fragments to include human, animal and wool were identified. Some of the wool fibers were dyed, and one of the animal hairs appears to be ca t of non-modern origin. Pollen grains and insect parts were also present in the material from the jars as well as synthetic and natural fibers. The natural fibers again consisted of mostly cotton and flax, with some of the cotton being dyed.

Thus the preliminary questions were answered in the affirmative. There are microscopic traces associated with the scrolls and these are capable of being characterized by light based microscope types of analysis. In addition, several collateral finds were reached. Using the amount of synthetic fibers present in the material as an indicator of degree of contamination, the material in the jars was much less contaminated than the cellophane tape pieces. Also the dirt in the jars from which the microscopic par ticles and fibers were removed is different between the jars. Thus it is evident that these two jars had different histories.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss the problem of dating the microscopic traces. Trace evidence normally undergoes a process of replacement by subsequent events. That is to say that as the person or object moves or is moved, the older particles tend t o fall off and be replaced by newer particles. In the case of the jars and the scrolls, this movement from the time of storage was relatively minimal. Thus addition rather than replacement was more prevalent. Thus the traces could be either modern or anci ent. While the synthetic fibers are on the face of it, of modern origin, fibers such as cotton and or flax, could be either of modern or ancient origin. We face the same problem with hairs. Aging does change the appearance of these hairs and fibers, but c hanges of appearance are not readily quantifiable. At this time, no dating technique is known which will allow for the dating of the small amounts of material we are dealing with. Work will need to be done on the dating question if this type of analysis i s to live up to its potential.


Two manuscripts were studied in the scroll vault of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. They were the Habakkuk Commentary and the Isaiah Manuscript A, from cave 1.

The stitching joining the panels of these manuscripts were studied utilizing a hand magnifier and ruler. The manner of stitching, and its twist and direction were recorded. In addition the twist direction and composition of the individual sewing threads w as recorded. While these are very simple parameters, changes in them are considered as indicative of different tribes and cultures (Maslowski, 1996 and Peterson, 1996). Stitching tends, once learned, to be automatic, consistent and repetitive. And one ten ds to teach the method and manner one learned. Thus the tradition and manner of stitching tends to be transmitted, one person and generation to the other. That is not to say that there are not differences. But the differences are more in a range of expres sion for an individual sewer than in style and manner. From the characteristics outlined above, I will attempt to derive information about the manner of stitching and the person or persons doing the stitching. The findings are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Stitching and thread characterization

From the above it can be seen that the two scrolls have 4 different sewing events represented. Further, at least 3, if not 4, individuals were responsible for these four events. Two of the people doing the stitching appear to have been working to a standa rd. The work is of high quality, attempts were made to minimalise its visibility when observing the document, and the manner, albeit showing individual differences, is repetitive. The third, and perhaps a fourth, person doing the stitching did not do qual ity work. No attempt to hide the stitching was made, and the work does not follow the standard discussed.

I was not able to determine if the repair in seam 5 of the Isaiah manuscript was done by a person other than the person doing the sewing of stitching in seam 1 of the Isaiah manuscript, since there is not a repetitive pattern present. I characterize this as a repair instead of a join/seam as there is quality stitching done to the standard both above and below it.

Due to the poor quality of the stitching in seam 1 of the Isaiah manuscript, and the fact that this stitching completely joins the two panels, it can be deduced that these panels were sewn together in a hasty fashion at a time other than the manufacture o f the manuscript. I was not able to determine at the time, if there was evidence for previous stitching in seam 1. Nor did I remove any samples of thread from the stitching in an attempt to identify the material.


It has been proved that there are microscopic traces on the scrolls that can be characterized utilizing classical light microscopic and forensic methodologies. Information as to the number of people who stitched two scrolls has also been derived.

Scientific methods can provide information on technologies, places, flocks, and people that were associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls. This information, while having value in its own right, can be of value to other scholars by providing them with non-subj ective methodologies to test facts indigenous to their hypotheses.

As valuable as the application of science can be to the scroll's research any removal of material, even in microscopic quantities, alters the scrolls. The scrolls are valuable manuscripts, and there are many factors and interests that must be considered b efore any collection of material from them. What is a concern to one discipline, may not be readily apparent to a person from another discipline. Thus, collaboration between scientist and textual scholar is needed in order to draft non-intrusive approache s based on meaningful questions. Thus we can gain maximum information for all with minimum damage or alteration of these priceless documents.


I would like to thank the Dead Sea Scrolls laboratory at the Rockerfeller museum and the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum for access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and material and artifacts associated with them

In addition, I would like to thank the Orion Center for encouraging cooperation between the textual scholars concerned with the Dead Sea Scrolls and Natural Scientists


Maslowski, R. F., 1996, Cordage Twist and Ethnicity, in a MOST INDISPENSABLE ART -- Native Fiber industries from Eastern North America, James B. Petersen, editor, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville

Peterson, J. B., 1996, Fiber Industries from Northern New England: Ethnicity and Technological Traditions during the Woodland Period, in a MOST INDISPENSABLE ART -- Native Fiber industries from Eastern North America, James B. Petersen, editor, The Univers ity of Tennessee Press, Knoxville

Robertson, B. and G.A. Vignaux, 1995, INTERPRETING EVIDENCE - Evaluating Forensic Science in the Courtroom, John Wiley & Sons, New York