The IAA’s Pnina Shor Retires

5 Questions for Pnina Shor

At the November 2019 Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Annual Meeting in San Diego, Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced her retirement. Pnina has served as Curator and Head of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) Unit since 2010. The unit includes the curatorship, exhibition, digitization and research of the DSS, as well as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Lab. Since its establishment this lab and its team have been responsible for repairing the damage caused to the scrolls by ravages of time and mishandling by previous generations of scholars and conservators, unknowingly.

As part of the DSS preservation efforts, the IAA has undertaken a huge digitization project whereby every scroll fragment—more than 25,000 fragments—is photographed using multispectral images with a system that was created by NASA for space research and adapted specifically for the DSS by top experts in the field. What began as a conservation effort soon turned into a comprehensive scientific enterprise, both physically and textually. Once Google offered to create a website and put the images online, the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library became an indispensable open-access tool for DSS research, available to the public worldwide.

Pnina has overseen some of the most groundbreaking and innovative projects involving the DSS over the past two decades. Yet her influence doesn’t stop there. As the Head of the Department for the Treatment and Conservation of Artifacts at the IAA, she has also overseen the conservation laboratories for pottery, glass, stone, organic materials, and metal artifacts. Here, BAR readers have the opportunity to learn a little more about her work.

Cargill and Shor with replica DSS

BAR’s Editor Robert Cargill and the IAA’s Pnina Shor show off a photographic reproduction of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, mounted on a piece of poster board. Photo: Robert R. Cargill.

Robert Cargill (BAR): Why are you retiring now? You are still young.

Pnina Shor: I have been with the IAA throughout my career and have had diverse jobs within the organization, beginning as a field archaeologist and continuing with the scientific aspects of processing the material. The peak of my career began in 2010 with the establishment of a unit dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls. By law we retire at the age of 67, so ten years later I am retiring wholeheartedly, having “raised” a capable team of the next generation of conservators, curators, and scholars. I am confident that my successor, Dr. Joe Uziel, a senior archaeologist in the IAA, who previously served as the head of the excavations in the City of David, will continue to develop the unit and lead it as best possible.

RC: How did you become involved with the Dead Sea Scrolls and their restoration and preservation?

Shor: As Head of the Department of Treatment and Conservation of Artifacts at the IAA, the Dead Sea Scrolls Conservation Lab was one of the department’s labs that I advanced. I soon realized that the Dead Sea Scrolls, the most important find of the 20th century, pose an immense physical challenge. Ancient texts have been found elsewhere in the world, but nowhere has a whole collection been taped together and encased within glass plates piled one on top of the other. So, although a lot of effort was put into the development and training of all labs and teams, extra effort was placed on the scrolls.

RC: When I visited your lab, I was impressed by the diversity of your team. How has that helped your work?

Shor: Our DSS Conservation Lab is unique! First of all, it is the one and only lab in the world that has specialized in dealing with 2000-year-old manuscripts comprising tens of thousands of fragments that belong to about a thousand texts, most of which have been taped or glued. Second, so far all of our conservators have been women. We were really lucky that at the time the lab was established, in the mid 1990s, Israel saw a huge wave of immigration from the former U.S.S.R., among them our first generation of Dead Sea Scroll conservators who came with museum experience in curating and preserving manuscripts. It was the Getty Conservation Institute that sponsored the first team of experts who came over to help us find the most adequate work protocol. In the years that have passed, these conservators gained unique experience in treating and handling this precious, fragile heritage.

RC: What current projects are happening in the lab?

Shor: After many years of practicing conservation techniques to slow down the physical deterioration of the scrolls, while searching for nondestructive methods to analyze the material aspects of the scrolls, we are now analytically researching the leather/parchment, papyrus, and ink. This initiative is led by the new head of our Dead Sea Scrolls Lab, Dr. Ilit Cohen-Ofri, who earned a Ph.D. from the prestigious Weizmann Institute in Israel. Another exciting enterprise is a collaboration we are doing with University of Kentucky Professor Brent Seals and his team. This project uses virtual 3D to decipher the carbonized and gelatinized scrolls that cannot be unrolled. We have just succeeded in extracting letters from five layers of a multilayered wad that had turned into a solid chunk. We are now working on their decipherment.

Pnina Shor studies one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Pnina Shor studies one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.Photo: Shai Halevi.

RC: How do you hope your colleagues will remember you and your work?

Shor: This is like writing my own obituary. I hope people will remember how much I loved my various positions at the IAA, trying to do the best possible job in every stage of my archaeological career, and, as “a finale,” how I took seriously our duty to preserve the scrolls for future generations.

RC: Pnina, on behalf of myself and the entire Biblical Archaeology Society, thank you for your tremendous efforts in protecting and restoring not only the Dead Sea Scrolls, but this important legacy, and for doing so with a grace and professionalism that serves as a model for future scholars and curators. Thank you, Pnina!

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