Researchers at the University of Manchester have discovered that pieces of leather parchment which were thought to be "blank" are in fact Britain’s only authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments.
The discovery was made at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library by a multi-national research team led by King's College Professor Joan Taylor.
“Looking at one of the fragments with a magnifying glass, I thought I saw a small, faded letter – a lamed, the Hebrew letter ‘L’,” Ms Taylor said in a press release.
“Frankly, since all these fragments were supposed to be blank and had even been cut into for leather studies, I also thought I might be imagining things,” she said, “but then it seemed maybe other fragments could have very faded letters too.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known pieces of the old Testament and date from between 400 BCE to 300CE. They were first discovered by Bedouin tribesman in the West Bank’s Qumran caves in 1947.
Ms Taylor’s team, that included researchers from the University of Malta and the University of Lugano, conducted multispectral imaging on the 51 largest fragments from the Qumran Caves held at the John Rylands Library.
“It was established that four have readable Hebrew/Aramaic text written in carbon-based ink,” said the University of Manchester press release.
The University of Manchester said that the fragments had been gifted by the Jordanian government to Ronald Reed, a leather expert at the University of Leeds, with a view to studying the apparently blank fragments for their physical and chemical composition.
Unlike recent high-profile cases of Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the United States being found to be forgeries, the fact that the manuscript pieces had never passed through the antiquities market has removed doubt over their authenticity.
The fragments discovered at the John Rylands Library have been largely untouched since they were given to the University of Manchester in 1997.
Ms Taylor’s team also revealed that there are vestiges of letters on the other fragments.
Researchers were able to make out the remains of four lines of text - 15 to 16 letters - on the best-preserved fragment. While most letters were only partially legible, it was possible to read ‘Shabbat’ clearly.
“This text may be related to the biblical book Ezekiel (46:1-3)”, researchers said.
Ms Taylor said that once she had the inkling that there was a possibility of text, she was compelled to probe the fragments.
“With new techniques for revealing ancient texts now available, I felt we had to know if these letters could be exposed,” she said.
“There are only a few on each fragment, but they are like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you find under a sofa.”
Professor Christopher Pressler, the Director of the University of Manchester Library, said: “Our University is now the only institution in the United Kingdom to hold authenticated textual fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
“It is particularly fitting that these fragments are held here at the John Rylands Library, one of the world’s greatest repositories of Judaeo-Christian texts,” he continued.
Further research on the fragments is underway and results will be published in a forthcoming paper, the university said.