How Duke lost Dead Sea scrolls

In 1950, Duke University was offered a chance to buy a portion of what is now considered the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The university turned it down.

Now, the Dead Sea Scrolls are in the possession of the Israel Antiquities Authority and routinely travel to museums worldwide, drawing thousands of visitors who pay upward of $20 to view them.

An exhibit of the scrolls opens today at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, showcasing the historic artifacts Duke once passed up.

Unearthed by a Bedouin goat herder in a cave near the Dead Sea in 1947, the scrolls offer an exquisite glimpse of the formative years of Judaism and Christianity.

They were on exhibit in San Diego last year, and in Charlotte in 2006.

But the Raleigh exhibit tells the story of the scrolls in relation to North Carolina. The exhibit, which visitors enter through a life-size re-created cave, begins with the scrolls' discovery and initial examination by a group of scholars, including Duke doctoral student William Brownlee, who was studying in Jerusalem.

Three years later, four scrolls traveled to Duke, where they were seen by 30,000 people during a one-week exhibit in the university's chapel. According to legend, one elderly man promptly fainted when told the Isaiah scroll he was looking at was written during the time of Jesus.

But though the public was enthusiastic, university officials were less so.

“No one in the U.S. was prescient enough to know what they were and how important they were,” said Eric Meyers, professor and director of the Judaic Studies Center at Duke. “It was a missed opportunity.”

The exhibit, a high-tech affair, includes three-dimensional multimedia presentations of North Carolina in proximity to the Dead Sea and a virtual tour of the Jerusalem temple. It is intended for adults but includes some displays for children.

The scrolls — 900 altogether — offer some of the earliest found copies of every book in the Hebrew Bible except Esther. A Jewish sect known as the Essenes may have copied some of these biblical books in addition to other books of Jewish literature and commentary found in the caves.

Excavations near the caves where the scrolls were found revealed a compound, known as Qumran, where historians think the Essenes lived. Findings unearthed there include several inkwells as well as a “scriptorium” or writing room, which suggests the Essenes devoted themselves to copying sacred texts.