A rare exhibit of fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls continues to attract visitors to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, and with good reason. Visitors may be surprised, however, to learn that the most impressive aspects of the exhibit have little to do with the scrolls themselves.

The main part of the exhibit is devoted to context and education, not spectacle. From a nicely crafted “cave” entrance, visitors enter a succession of rooms in which they learn about Israel’s varied climate and topography, the initial discovery of the scrolls, and the community of Qumran located near the caves where most of the scrolls were discovered. Large photographs, models, and more than 100 artifacts from Qumran help to illustrate the difficulty of interpreting ancient evidence: was Qumran the home of the Essene sect, where pious residents bathed in ritual baths and copied scrolls in a “scriptorium”? Or was it a village devoted to making pottery from the fine silt clay that settled in several pools? There is evidence for both views, along with others. Pottery, coins, fabrics, tools, and an inkwell (below right) found at Qumran help tell the story.

A particularly interesting aspect of the exhibit deals with conservation. Remains of the scrolls are treated with utmost care today, but when they were first found, the scrolls were shipped around the world, stored in safety deposit boxes, and put on display with little concern for what changes in humidity and light would do to them. Researchers pieced them together in bright sunlight dimmed only by cigarette smoke, sticking fragments together with cellophane tape. Much of today’s work seeks to undo some of the damage of the scrolls’ early treatment.

Many visitors will probably be underwhelmed when they finally pass through a set of glass doors and into a darkened room where six scroll fragments are on display. There are no scrolls such as one might see pictured in illustrated Bibles or on display in a synagogue. Instead, the dimly lit room contains six environmentally controlled display cases, each containing a fragment of a scroll no larger than the palm of a hand (the fragment above is from Genesis). Above each case, an enlarged photo shows details that can’t otherwise be seen, and an interpretive poster provides information about the fragment, including a translation.

Scrolls on display include both biblical books and sectarian documents, helping visitors gain an appreciation for the wide variety of literature available in the ancient world, and how much of it is lost to us. Further displays feature several rare Bibles, including some of the first to be printed.

All tickets, by the way, include an interpretive audio tour via a handset that allows visitors to move at their own pace.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is more educational than exciting, but I think education is a good thing: it’s well worth the time, effort, and few dollars it will cost to see it. One of the best things about the exhibit, of course, is that it’s right in the middle of the Museum of Natural Sciences, a North Carolina jewel that many people have yet to discover. Plan an hour to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. Plan at least another hour or two to wander among the living creatures, giant skeletons and dinosaur fossils that make the museum a place worth visiting time and again.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit will remain on display through January 4, making the museum an ideal holiday destination. For more information, see the museum website.

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