The Puzzling Limits of Models

A study suggests an established technique used for the Dead Sea Scrolls is not as reliable as previously thought

Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran

Archaeology has been likened to solving a puzzle which is missing some–or occasionally most–of its pieces. The scholars who dedicate their lives to this pursuit have developed a toolkit of powerful techniques to fill in the information that time has not preserved, radiocarbon dating, lidar, and many more. Now, it may turn out that one of those techniques is not as reliable as they had thought.

In, “The Length of a Scroll: Quantitative Evaluation of Material Reconstructions” (PlOS One, 10/21/20), Eshbal Ratzon and Nachum Dershowitz study the use of mathematical modeling as a way to ascertain how much length is missing from decayed scrolls. These length estimates have been relevant to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as other scrolls of importance to the study of ancient history.


 The Israel Museum/by Ardon Bar Hama.

The Dead Sea Scrolls may be the most important discovery in biblical archaeology of the last hundred years. They continue to reveal more information about ancient Judaism and the divergence which led to rabbinic Judaism and the emergence of Christianity. They are the closest source to the original Bible, and provide other texts that provide a wealth of insight into both ancient Judaism and the time of Jesus. Yet the scrolls had decayed over millenia. Most of what survived is in the form of fragments, some tantalizing puzzle pieces but far from enough to provide the complete picture without deduction and analysis.

Ratzon and Dershowitz explain the widely used mathematical method for deducing the length of even a degraded scroll. “…estimating the outer circumference and thickness of the substrate, and then calculating the length of the missing remainder.” Scholars have done very advanced analysis on this, using three consecutive points of damage on a fragment to learn the direction of rolling, and using the distance between points of damage to calculate the circumference.

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Though aware that these estimations are imperfect, scholars have relied upon the measurements to get a sense of what portion of the scrolls have survived, and thus inform guesses about what may be missing between the surviving puzzle pieces.

However, Ratzon and Dershowitz find in their analysis that the errors in this method are potentially much larger than scholars have assumed. Among other challenges, ancient scrolls “were probably not stored evenly rolled.” Also, scroll shrinkage over two millenia can confound even the most careful attempts to estimate the length of the scroll or the gaps between surviving fragments.

Learning the history of the biblical world has always been a daunting challenge. The new questions about the reliability of one of the tools to analyze the Dead Sea Scrolls, possibly the most critical firsthand source, only adds to that challenge. Fortunately, biblical archaeologists are dedicated to continuing to work the puzzle and advance our understanding of Bible history.

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Archaeological Views: Digital Archaeology’s New Frontiers
by Todd R. Hanneken. Seventeen years into the “digital millennium”—which supposedly began in 2000—it would be understandable if a certain cynicism arose for everything new, digital, high tech or cyber. Particularly in archaeology—what have digital tools really done for us that earlier, traditional tools did not? Is a digital photograph that much better than a film photograph? Does a laser distance measurer produce better archaeology than established survey tools? What does a computer 3D model do that a hand-drawn or built model cannot? Do we really understand the ancient world more clearly thanks to computers?


Thoughts on Archaeological Method by Henry O. Thompson. Anson Rainey’s eulogy to Yohanan Aharoni (“Yohanan Aharoni—The Man and His Work,” BAR 02:04) notes Aharoni’s refusal to “bow down and worship at the balk.”a As one who has helped remove more than one balk, I appreciate Aharoni’s flexibility. I note with interest too, his openness to new evidence and his refusal to waste energy perpetuating his own infallibility. Here is the continuing spirit of William Foxwell Albright.


A Capsule History of Archaeological Method by Joe D. Seger. Until about 100 years ago archaeological method in the Near East consisted primarily of aimless treasure hunting. In the latter part of the 19th century, archaeological pioneers like Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae and Troy, and Flinders Petrie in Egypt and Palestine (see “Sir Flinders Petrie: Father of Palestinian Archaeology,” BAR 06:06) provided a vision that directed archaeology toward systematic excavation practices.

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