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Scrolls of mystery

— The controversies surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls are still lively, 2,000 years after they were written, and more than half a century after they were found hidden within the caves of the Judean desert. To get a sense of the mysteries surrounding those ancient fragments, there's nothing like seeing them up close - and that's exactly what I did last week at Seattle's Pacific Science Center during the run-up to its big-ticket exhibit, "Deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Israel Antiquities Authority via Pacific Science Center
This fragment from a calendrical document measures
about 2.5 inches by 4 inches (6 by 10.6 centimeters).

From a couple of feet away, many of the pieces look rather mundane: tattered bits from a shopping list that's gone through the laundry, perhaps, or yellowed wallpaper that's been scraped off a wall, or even ragged pieces from a jigsaw puzzle.

The puzzle analogy is particularly apt, because archaeologists have had to piece together thousands of fragments to decipher what's on the scrolls. To give museumgoers a feel for the job, curators have set up a hands-on exhibit consisting of a bin in which 50 1,000-piece puzzles have been dumped. Only a few pieces were matched with another when I looked, and it's the same with most of the actual scrolls.

But there is the occasional long stretch - like a 41-inch-long (105-centimeter-long) scroll on display in Seattle. No one would mistake this for a shopping list: Rather, it has the look of an ancient Constitution writ small, held safe within its display case.

When you stoop down to look more closely through the glass, you might marvel at the fine script on the parchment, laid out in neat rows. That "Constitution" actually contains Psalm 119: "Forever, O Lord, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens." Nearby you'll find a commentary on Hosea, cast as a husband's indictment of his wife: "I will uncover her disgrace in the sight of her lovers. ..." And over there, a calendrical text that specifies holy days with all the poetry of, um, a shopping list: "On the 25th of the month is the Sabbath of Jedaiah ..."

The 10 sets of fragments on display in Seattle are just a sampling of the 900 parchment and papyrus documents, found near the ruins of an ancient settlement called Qumran. The texts have been dated to between 250 B.C. and A.D. 68 - thus representing the oldest surviving bits of the Bible. Were they carefully tucked away by the ascetics of the Essene sect, living in Qumran? Or were they more hurriedly left behind by believers who fled Jerusalem when Romans put down a Jewish revolt?

Those are among the questions still being debated by archaeologists. The mainstream view is that the caves were essentially long-term storage libraries for the Essenes, and that Qumran served as the sect's communal center. But in the pages of the Biblical Archaeology Review and The New York Times, Israeli archaeologists Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg argue that Qumran was actually the site of a pottery factory rather than a cult headquarters - and that it just happened to be the most convenient place for refugees from the A.D. 68 revolt to stash their precious scriptures.

Such debates touch upon the deep questions surrounding the identity of the scrolls' authors, and the particular perspective (or would that be perspectives?) represented in the documents.

To help put those puzzles together, scientists are using tried-and-true tools - including the recovery and analysis of artifacts found at the Qumran site and within the caves - as well as sophisticated "CSI"-style methods such as multispectral imaging and DNA analysis.

For example, minute samples from the parchments - which, after all, are animal skins - can yield genetic fingerprints to show which fragments should be grouped together. That will help reduce the Dead Sea Scrolls' grand 50,000-piece puzzle into smaller, more manageable puzzles.

Stan Orchard / Pacific Science Center
Pottery and pieces of silver were
found near the archaeological site.

The displays surrounding the core of the exhibit provide museumgoers with that scientific context - but with a personal context as well. Hoards of silver coins, found in the Qumran vicinity, bring to mind the "30 pieces of silver" mentioned in New Testament accounts of Jesus' betrayal.

For Indiana Jones fans, there are replicas of the mysterious "Copper Scroll," which promises gold and silver to the person who can figure out the scroll's baffling directions. (No one has succeeded in finding the treasure - assuming that it ever existed in the first place.)

Other artifacts include the dyed textiles worn by Qumran residents, their hairnets and combs, even their sandals. "When you look at sandals that someone wore, you start to get a real connection to the people who wrote the scrolls," said Diana Johns, the project manager for the Seattle exhibit.

"Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls" began its U.S. tour in Charlotte, N.C., and will be at the Pacific Science Center through Jan. 7. Then it moves on to Kansas City, Mo., and San Diego. For more information about the exhibit, check out the science center's Web site, as well as these previews from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times.