There’s an assault these days against the type of liberal arts education I enjoyed at the University of Pittsburgh. I majored in Philosophy because it allowed me to be free to choose from a wide range of subjects offered. When I was at Pitt, the Philosophy department was ranked #2 in the country – so the courses were taught by the best in the field. Besides that, a major in philosophy only required taking 8 courses in the subject – leaving plenty of time for other subjects that interested me – math, chemistry, history (especially art history), Hebrew and Jewish studies, etc. True, this degree did not lead me easily to a job and I ended up being a secretary before pursuing my masters’ degree in Chemistry from Carnegie Mellon (seen as more practical even though I never worked in that, either). Life doesn’t lead in a straight line for most people; but my wide ranging interests and ability to delve into a variety of subjects served me well in living life and even occasionally professionally. Even today, with the emphasis on the end-game and many using higher education as a high-level trade school leading them into a specific career, broad-based knowledge spurs advancement in many subjects.

Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh, Interior

Even in archaeology, hard-core science is enhancing our understanding and ability to preserve the past. Recently, I listened to a fascinating lecture by Dr. Ilit Cohen-Ofri – head of conservation at the Dead Sea Scroll lab – and my background in chemistry allowed me to connect better to these important historical documents and their preservation for future generations.

Ink is made up of two components: pigment and binder. Pigment is what we see – the color – and is inorganic. The media on which the pigment is applied (parchment, paper, cloth, etc.), however, are organic. In order for the pigment to be permanent, it needs to be mixed with an organic part called a binder (because it binds the pigment to the medium). The most common pigments are charcoal (soot or charcoal powder) or metals such as iron. Spectroscopy has identified the pigments in the Dead Sea Scrolls as charcoal, and not metals. Charcoal is readily available and cheap. There would not have been a need for the Dead Sea sect to bring this material from far and the pigment could have been produced locally.

The inorganic pigment does not react with the substrate on which it is applied. This role of binding is accomplished by organic material mixed with the pigment. In analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls, organic material in areas without ink (that is to say the medium on which the words were written) was identified as keratin proteins. These are fibrous proteins that make up nails, hair, skin, which is totally logical since the Dead Sea Scrolls were written mostly on parchment – treated animal skins. Contrastingly, the binders in the ink itself were plant proteins, terpenes and mold proteins – none of animal origin. In the future, identification of specific plants may be used to differentiate different authors and will help to better understand the scrolls’ history.

Besides the ink, researchers also found a large amount of sand and salt covering the surface of the examined scrolls. More work needs to be done to see if these are representative, and if the salt interferes with or actually contributes to preservation. It may even be possible to use the mineral composition to identify the geographic location of the origin of the scrolls themselves.

This is just the beginning of applying non-destructive spectral imaging to help us understanding how the scrolls were composed in order to preserve them for future generations.

Cutting-edge scientific tools are increasingly used to elucidate history and solve historical questions. I think that as time continues, the merging of science and liberal arts brings a unified, collaborative atmosphere to understanding our world for advancement and preservation. Just like at the Dead Sea, where disparate elements come together to form a beautiful whole, so, too, in knowledge do disparate subjects enrich us.

Sunrise over the Dead Sea

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