Unravelling the threads of history at the ESRF


An international team of scientists from Israel, Germany and the United Kingdom has recently been working at the ESRF in order to unravel the threads of history. Wrappings of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls have been studied with synchrotron light. The X-rays will hopefully provide the team with precious information, such as the kind of fibres the textiles are made of and the type of pigment that was used to dye some of them. Both identifications, coupled with Carbon-14 dating, might eventually also date these textiles.

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In 1947, Bedouin shepherds discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in different caves in the area of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. It is commonly accepted that they were written between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. At that time, the Essenes, also called the Dead Sea Sect, inhabited that area. They practised a sort of “purer” Judaism, with rules that remained written in the sectarian part of the scrolls. Among the biblical documents recovered, there was a copy of the Book of Isaiah almost 1000 years older than any previously known manuscript. Being the first proof of the Old Testament ever written, its importance is unquestionable.


The team (from left to right): Christian Riekel (ESRF), Martin Müller (University of Kiel), Manolis Pantos (Daresbury Laboratory), Jan Gunneweg (Hebrew University) and Manfred Burghammer (ESRF).

A multidisciplinary collaborative project involving 19 institutes around the world is trying to discover as much as they can about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the material that was found in the caves, as well as in the settlement and its cemetery. At the Microfocus beam line at the ESRF, a team from the Hebrew University, from the University of Kiel and from Daresbury Laboratory has been studying the pigments and fibres of the wrappings of the scrolls and other textiles found in the caves.

The Cave of the Letters
The experiments recently carried out at the ESRF had the aim of finding out the nature of the fibres of some remains of clothing found in another cave, called the Cave of the Letters. This cave is so called because of the discovery of the letters written by a revolutionary fighter, Bar Kochba, in the second revolt of the Jews against the Romans around 135 AD. The textiles found in this cave are solely from the second Century AD.

Identifying the fibres

Jan Gunneweg is the leading scientist in this research. He started his collaboration research in 1998 with the nuclear reactor in Budapest by applying neutron activation to Qumran pottery in order to obtain a chemical fingerprint of a pot that can then be traced to the place where it was made on the assumption that each clay on Earth has its specific chemical composition. By doing so, the relations between the Essenes and other sites can be traced. Since 2000, he has also turned his attention to textiles. At the ESRF, the technique of micro-X-ray diffraction applied on single fibrils, which are a hundredth of a millimetre in diameter, can tell the difference between the three types of fibres: cotton, wool or linen. Moreover, it can also give details of the state of preservation of the textile and differentiate between fibres of the same plant family but subtly different variants, such as ramie, hemp or ordinary flax in linen. Thanks to this technique, Jan and his team have already identified some pieces of the wrappings of the scrolls and pieces of clothing. “We found out that they were made of different material, such as linen or wool. We also found cotton in certain pieces, which is a material that arrived in Europe and the Middle East many centuries later. This tells us that those precise pieces don’t belong to the same period as the Dead Sea Scrolls”, he explains.

The pigments and Jewish Law

One of the aims of the scientists is to find out how the pigments in the fibres were made. They are particularly interested in indigo, a colour very often used in Jewish religious practices. The Bible prescribes that the pigment to be used for the traditional thin blue stripes of the prayer shawl has to be tekhelet (indigo). Indigo colour can be made from plants (indigoferra or nowadays also woad) or from a shellfish called murex trunculus. According to Jewish law, sacred parchments cannot be mixed with material coming from an animal, such as wool, but one must use materials stemming from plants such as linen and cotton. The scrolls are made of parchment, and therefore, material from an animal.


A piece of textile studied from Qumran.

According to the law, the wrapping should then be made of plant material. Whether the indigo dye is made from a plant or from an animal will give very valuable information to the scientists by showing if the authors of the manuscripts followed the law.

There are still many secrets to be revealed related to the Qumran community, their caves and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many investigations with different techniques are being carried out in various institutes around the world, as well as at the ESRF. Techniques used include Carbon-14 Dating, Microscopy, Neutron Activation Analysis, Raman Spectroscopy or High Performance Liquid Chromatography. The experiments carried out at the Microfocus beamline at the ESRF will hopefully help to unravel some of the threads of the history of the Judaeo-Christian religion.