A frayed linen hairnet, leather sandals half-rotted with age and a clay jar appear inconspicuous on their own. But in a room with the Dead Sea Scrolls, they offer a compelling glimpse into a culture lost nearly two millennia ago.
That’s what the Jewish Museum hopes visitors will find in a new exhibit, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World,” which opens on September 21.
Six fragments from the scrolls—discovered over 60 years ago in a cave in the Judean desert—are on display until January 4, along with artifacts from an ancient community often associated with the scrolls.
Photo by Mary Stachyra
“The fragments from these six scrolls have never before been seen in New York City,” said Susan Braunstein, Curator of Archaeology and Judaica at the Jewish Museum.
In fact, they are rarely seen anywhere. The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) has strict rules to preserve the texts, and individual fragments can only be displayed for ninety days each year.
Discovered over 60 years ago in Qumran, in the Judean desert, the scrolls, now fragile and brown with age, contain biblical verses, religious teachings, prophecies and prayers.
Scholars are divided as to who actually used the scrolls.
Did the Essenes, a small Judaic sect located near the cave, use the scrolls? Or were the caves a library of sorts for many communities—a place to store sacred texts?
“The original mainstream view was that the Essenes” used this materiel, said Prina Shor, Head of the Artifacts Treatment and Conservation Department at the IAA. “Now there is no majority view.”
The artifacts from the Essene community have also fueled new speculation among scholars. The hairnet, in particular, raises questions. Ancient historians—the source of most information on the sect—said that the Essenes were an all-male community. So why were women’s hairnets found in the area?
Whatever the case, the exhibit is a rare chance for New Yorkers to see the scrolls. The preservation rules make it unlikely that they will come to New York again anytime soon.
“They were preserved in caves for 2,000 years,” said Shor. “It is our duty to preserve them for at least 2,000 years more.”