Posted by: michaeldaybath | April 30, 2010

BnF Exhibition on Qumran

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have a few hours spare so that I could visit the new exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. The exhibition is subtitled “the secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” but it does not focus on the more lurid theories that have consistently surrounded the scrolls since their discovery. In fact, the genuine story of their discovery and exploitation is bizarre enough, involving Bedouin tribesmen, traders in antiquities, war, and scholarly disputation. The exhibition’s highlight is the small collection of scroll fragments in the BnF’s collections, all from Qumran Cave 1. Cave 1 was discovered in 1947 and later excavated under the direction of G. L. Harding of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. The Cave 1 fragments, including those now in the BnF, were arranged and edited for publication by Dominique Barthélemy and Józef Tadeusz Milik, and published in the first volume of the series Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955). The BnF fragments on display are mostly Biblical or are from the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha, so the exhibition displays them near later versions of the same texts from the collections of the BnF and the Musée Bible et Terre Sante. It also provides context on the Qumran area and its potential identification with the Biblical Gomorrah, the history of manuscript discovery in Egypt and Palestine (including the “Damascus Document” found in the Cairo Genizah), the discovery of the scrolls, the archaeology of Khirbet-Qumran, the Jewish Rebellion and its aftermath, and some information on the “Essene Hypothesis.”

There is no room here for a full review of the exhibition, but I thought that it might we worth mentioning a couple of items from a conservation perspective:

  • The scroll fragments are extremely fragile, but their handling by scholars – and (in some cases) their discoverers) – has not always aided their conservation. For example, there is a well-known Picture Post photograph – reproduced in this exhibition – of Harding piecing together scroll fragments by hand while smoking a cigar or large cigarette (Getty Images #3282433). More seriously, some scrolls were joined together using the newly invented Scotch Tape or placed between sheets of glass. One of the videos shown in this exhibition demonstrated the modern conservation techniques needed to undo the damage caused by this – although some information will have been lost forever.
  • In Cave 3, one of the scrolls discovered there (3Q15) was made of copper. The material had corroded badly, so through the agency of one of the original team of scholars appointed to decipher and publish the scrolls, it eventually found  its way (under the supervision of the Jordanian authorities) to the College of Technology in Manchester to be cut open by Prof. H. Wright Baker. This process was demonstrated in one of the other videos on show in this exhibition. Another video covered the more recent attempt (late 1990s) by the research department of EDF (Electricité de France) to make a facsimile of the copper scroll by processing digital images of the cut sections. A copy of the impressive facsimile produced by this process was also on show as part of this exhibition.

I suppose that both of these demonstrate that conservation work is something that can never be assumed to be complete. Also that a durable medium in one context (i.e. copper) may not be the easiest one to decipher after two-thousand years.


Qumrân, le secret des manuscrits de la mer Morte, Bibliothèque François-Mitterand, Paris, 13 April – 11 July 2010. More information available at:

Catalogue: Qumrân, le secret des manuscrits de la mer Morte, sous la direction de Laurent Héricher, Michael Langlois et Estelle Villeneuve. Paris: éditions de la BnF, 2010. ISBN 978-2-7177-2452-3. EUR 29,00


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