“Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit in Denver illuminates the mysterious origins of major world religions

Deep inside the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, past layers of security card-activated doors and stoic guards, Tania Treiger compares color photographs of a restored Dead Sea Scroll to the original article — which sits a few inches away in an airtight frame that mimics the atmosphere of the cave at the Qumran archaelogical site in Israel where it was found.

“It’s my babies!” said Treiger, a Russian-born conservator for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and one of only four people in the world allowed to handle the 2,000-year-old scrolls. “There are 20,000 fragments that have been found, from big ones to teeny, teeny, teeny pieces. It’s a blessing.”

Museum staff members are hoping for similar enthusiasm from the 100,000 people they expect to view the “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit, which opens its final U.S. stop Friday in Denver.

Since its premiere at Discovery Times Square in New York in 2011, about a million people have seen the collection of ancient writings, most of them in Hebrew, that include at least fragments from almost every Old Testament book.  Never before seen in Colorado, these oldest-known biblical documents, and the hundreds of ancient artifacts they’re displayed with, arrive with a host of political implications, including revived controversies over ownership.

“There’s an increasing conflict around who owns antiquities in the museum world in general, and who can claim the past as their own,” said Eric Smith, an assistant professor at the Iliff School of Theology who specializes in the history of Christianity. “I’ve been going around to churches in town giving lectures on these ahead of the exhibit, and there have been crowds of hundreds at some places. I’ve been shocked, honestly.”

In December, the IAA canceled a major Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at a museum in Frankfurt after German authorities refused to guarantee their return if the scrolls were claimed by Palestinians or Jordanians. Palestinian activists have argued that the scrolls do not belong to Israel because they were first found during the 1940s in caves in the West Bank.

“Unfortunately in Europe it’s way more difficult and complicated,” said Helena Sokolov, head of the Foreign Exhibitions Department at the IAA. “The main condition is (to have) immunity from seizure, which is given by the government, not the state or the museum. And they have to issue a new document for each museum.”

President Donald Trump’s decision in December to reverse decades of U.S. policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital also inflamed international tensions over the Jewish state, leading to a swift and unusually harsh reaction from Arab, Muslim and European leaders.

Fortunately, Sokolov said, not only did U.S. officials issue an immunity document for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, but the museum itself has the combination of space, climate control, security and prestige to handle the “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit.

“We stay away from politics,” Sokolov said. “We are scientists: archaeologists, researchers and conservators. Not just for Israel or Jews, but for everybody. All are welcome to this exhibit.”

As IAA staff members prepped the Denver version this week, with help from New York-based Running Subway Productions (who first produced it) and museum staff members, conversations flitted between Hebrew, Russian, Spanish and English, owing to the diverse backgrounds of modern-day Israelis.

“In terms of history, this is the largest exhibition ever shown in the states,” said Debora Ben Ami, senior curator of the Iron Age & Persian Periods at IAA’s National Treasures Department. “This time we wanted to tell the complete story, from the present back to the emergence of the Israelites in the 12th-century BCE” (Before Common Era).

Debora Ben Ami, Senior Curator of ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Debora Ben Ami, Senior Curator of the Iron Age & Persian Periods for the Israel Antiquities Authority, walks past large pots, jars and capitals from temples from the 7th and 8th century BC that are part of the upcoming Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit opening soon at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science during a visit on March 6, 2018 in Denver. The pots and jars seen above held grains, wine, water, and oil.

The exhibit opens with images of excavation and discovery, setting the stage for the hundreds of ancient artifacts that lead up to the 10 scrolls that will be on display in a massive circular table — including a pair that have never before been seen in public. Conservators at the IAA have worked round the clock for more than three decades authenticating, restoring and decoding the scrolls, which range from religious texts to “war rules” and lease agreements among farmers.

Treiger recalls how the scrolls were handled when they were first discovered in jars in the bone-dry, below-sea level caves near the Dead Sea, which allowed their delicate parchment and papyrus to survive for more than two millennia. Scientists smoked cigarettes and ate food over the scrolls as they used Scotch tape-style adhesives and book bindings to puzzle them together, constantly subject as they were to unpredictable wind, sunlight and humidity.

“We fix all of the problems areas — all of the cracks, faults and cleaves,” Treiger said as she prepared a condition report for the scroll known as 11Q5 Psalms, first discovered in 1956. “Some were found as recently as the year 2000. In just the last year, the Dead Sea Scrolls unit started working with multispectrum imaging, which allows us to see even the dark parts and reveal new words.”

That’s significant, given the crucial historical value of the scrolls. In 11Q5 Psalms — the 11 refers to the number of the cave at the dig, the Q to Qumran, and the 5 to the number of the manuscript found in that cave — for example, the order of the Psalms does not correspond to the present version of the Hebrew Bible, and the scroll contains Psalms also not found in the present version, according to a museum document.

The 10 scrolls that open the exhibit will be rotated out in June so another 10 can take their place until the exhibit closes on Sept. 3. The first batch will returns to Israel to rest in complete darkness, “naked”  and without their cases, for at least five years.

One of the layers of extraordinary security surrounding the scrolls exhibit is not to discuss specifics, said museum spokeswoman Maura O’Neal, who declined to provide details about how or when the scrolls are transported.

The scrolls are far from the oldest artifacts at the museum, which contains a massive collection of fossils and other ancient treasures. But “Dead Sea Scrolls” also brings with it 600 other reminders of ancient Middle Eastern life, from shockingly well-preserved organic material, like leather sandals and even food (rock-hard date, anyone?), to one-of-a-kind religious jewelry, weapons and a 3-ton chunk of Jerusalem’s Western Wall that visitors can touch and stuff prayers into as they exit.

“Sometimes we want to show only the beautiful stuff, so spectators can walk through the show and think, ‘Hey, everybody drank from gold cups!’ ” said Oded Reviv, who works for the Israel Antiquities Authority and handles packing and installation for the exhibit. “Here we have the everyday-life things, like tables and chairs and pots and stamps. We try to balance the goodies and the reality.”

The main goodies, of course, are the scrolls. And seeing them in person is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, said the Iliff School’s Smith.

“They’re easily the most important discovery bearing on the Bible that has ever been made — by at least 1,000 years,” he said. “It’s a miracle that we even have anything from that period of time. But with these, you can see the little flaws that bring you this immediate sense of physical history, and the fact that they were made by people just like you and me. Being in the room with them really takes you off guard. It’s humbling.”

If you go:

“Dead Sea Scrolls.” Biblical-era exhibition of ancient scrolls and Middle Eastern artifacts. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-5 pm. Saturday-Saturday, March 16-Sept. 3 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd. Tickets: $18 to $26 (includes general admission). 303-370-6000 or dmns.org.

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