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Dead Sea Scrolls: From the lowest place on Earth to 'the mile high city'

The Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed in special case with individually regulated compartments to protect them.
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A replica of Jerusalem's Western Wall is a favorite among visitors to this unique exhibition in Denver

In late 1946, Bedouin shepherds stumbled across a cave near the Dead Sea holding a secret forgotten for 2,000 years: seven ancient scrolls of parchment containing Hebrew script linked to biblical writings.

Over the next decade archaeologists discovered an entire network of caves, now known as the Qumran caves, and within them found over 900 additional manuscripts and fragments we call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among these manuscripts was the oldest known copy of the Hebrew bible.

Fast forward 72 years. Twenty of these scrolls, and more than 600 artifacts have traveled almost 7,000 miles to Denver, Colorado for a special six-month long exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

The exhibition, which holds the largest collection of artifacts from the Holy Land to arrive in the United States, aims to tell the story of the ancient Israelites who wrote the scrolls, as well as the larger story of the development of the Middle East, and of the religious traditions that shaped western civilization.

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“This exhibition speaks to people in such a unique way because of the shared culture they have with what is on display.” Jennifer Moss Logan, Coordinator for Nature & Culture Gallery Programs explains.

“We been able to have incredible discussions with our faith communities – Christian community, Jewish community, Islamic community, all the Abrahamic faiths for whom this is so important.”

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The earliest artifacts housed within the exhibit date back to 1200 BCE, an estimated 800 years before the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls were written.

A replica of a traditional four-room house that the early Israelites lived in has been installed, giving a glimpse into daily life in the Iron age. A unique feature of these homes was that each room had its own door to the outside courtyard, leading researchers to believe that these ancient people had specific traditions surrounding cleanliness and equality.

©Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Turning a corner, the timeline moves to 700 BCE, where the exhibition brings together history, artifact and biblical writings to tell the story of the conquest of Lachish by the Assyrians.

At the site 37 miles southwest of Jerusalem archaeologists unearthed arrowheads and slings stones, now carefully arranged in display cases.

A carved stone frieze recovered from the ruins of Assyrian king Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, near modern day Mosul, depicts armies using these same weapons in the conquest. These artifacts paired together bring to life the passages describing the siege in the Book of Kings from the Hebrew Bible.

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And visitors are finding more connections of their own within the relics.

“One thing I saw that amazes me was a display of coins with Caesar’s image.” Jim Nelson recalls. “As I’m looking at them it reminded me of the story in the bible where Jesus was talking about do we have to pay taxes, and he said ‘give to Caesar what’s Caesar's and give God what is God’s. Its powerful to me that I saw the actual item he was talking about.”

- The scrolls & their writings -

The scrolls and many of the artifacts are extremely delicate - sensitive to light, temperature and atmospheric conditions. The scrolls are so fragile that they can only be on display for three months at a time before returning to storage for a five-year rest period.

On June 11th, the ten scrolls currently on display will be replaced with a new set of ten scrolls to be displayed through September. Each set has a scroll that has never before been on display for the public.

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The scrolls are infamous for their early biblical writings, but many also documented more mundane topics such as land sales, or everyday rituals.

One of the scrolls, currently on display for the first time, describes rituals surrounding purity. The people of the time put great importance on keeping the community pure and clean.

Artifacts on display near to the scroll reinforce that idea - like a comb that included two different sized teeth, one for normal brushing of hair and a finer tooth believed to aid with the removal of lice.

Other artifacts, like a cup to hold water for hand washing, are made of limestone. Limestone was believed to be impervious to impurities.

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Another scroll on display is an early version of psalms, written in a more modern version Hebrew script. Within the text can be found the four-letter name of god written in Paleo Hebrew, a practice used to highlight the importance of the name, and similar to practice still used today.

“Some of our visitors who may be familiar with these texts might make reference to something they see in their bibles at home where that word might be written in capital letters, the word “LORD” and that’s something they find in their own texts,” Moss points out, noting that “the things that were important to these people who wrote these texts are also important to people today 2000 years later.”

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- Eight years in the making -

Bringing the exhibit Denver was nearly an eight-year process, and it is likely the last stop after a six-city US tour.

There are many challenges to installing such an exhibition. Many of the artifacts require special display cases to control atmospheric conditions.

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Others were so large that staff had to ensure the displays could handle their weight.

A favorite of visitors is a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, complete with a three-ton block of stone from the Wall in the Old City. Guests can touch the stone, and place notes or prayers in the cracks.

The notes are collected by the museum and sent to Israel to be buried alongside the notes collected from the original wall. A live stream from the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem plays nearby.

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For museum visitor Kathy, the exhibition arrived at the perfect time, acting as a prelude to her upcoming trip to Israel.

“I’m trying to pick things out that saw here, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all worked together,” she says. “You can just feel the history there.”

Another visitor, Dale Hammond, remembers hearing about the scrolls when they were first discovered, and the impact that left on her.

“I remember I was a teenager and what a great thing it was for archaeology and the study of religion,” she says. “When I was a teenager I wanted to study archaeology.”

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“I can’t believe I’m actually getting to see them,” she adds. “I’ve always wanted to go to Israel, but at my age I probably won’t get to go.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science will be on display through September 3, 2018.

Jessi Satin is an i24NEWS Senior Producer


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