Indiana Jones inspired a generation of archeologists, but the fact is, most archeology is fairly dry and dull work. Brushing off dirt in the middle of a desert for hours at a time, just to find that amazing pottery shard is from 75 years ago, not 1700 years ago can be a bit disheartening.
But imagine that it’s the middle of the 1940’s and you’re a Bedouin shepherd. A sheep from the flock strays off into a cave in the Wadi Qumran area near the Dead Sea, near the West Bank of what’s about to become the nation of Israel. To scare it out, you throw in a rock or two, just to be startled by the sound of breaking pottery.
Further investigation reveals a series of urns, and some of them have scrolls rolled up within. Not really knowing much better, you take them to the local antiques buyer and he offers you a few dollars for the find. Not a bad profit given that you make pennies as a shepherd. News of the find gets out, however, and it’s not long before archeologists and treasure hunters alike are swarming all over the hills.
Ultimately, there are over 900 of these “Dead Sea Scrolls” found in a dozen different caves and they turn out to be one of the most important archeological finds of the 20th Century, a version of the Old Testament 1000 years older than the earliest known prior to their discovery. As the Oxford Companion to Archeology explains:
The biblical manuscripts from Qumran, which include at least fragments from every book of the Old Testament … provide a far older cross section of scriptural tradition than that available to scholars before. While some of the Qumran biblical manuscripts are nearly identical to the Masoretic, or traditional, Hebrew text of the Old Testament, some manuscripts of the books of Exodus and Samuel found in Cave Four exhibit dramatic differences in both language and content. In their astonishing range of textual variants, the Qumran biblical discoveries have prompted scholars to reconsider the once-accepted theories of the development of the modern biblical text…
A fantastic and amazing archeological find. So an exhibit built around these Dead Sea Scrolls should be amazing and fascinating, right? As presented by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, turns out that it’s rather dry and far less engaging – particularly for children – than I hoped. It’s much more of a “pure” archeology exhibit, so it shows pots, urns, coins and similar without a context, and there are very few people of the era portrayed. More importantly, there’s too little story and we are a society that lives and breathes stories.
Let’s have a look at the exhibit…
After an interesting queueing area multimedia presentation, the first area encountered is a timeline of archeological finds:
As is now common in museums, dates revolve around the Common Era: after Christ’s birth is CE and before are BCE, Before the Common Era. The above photo demonstrates the emphasis on items, though: some of the coins shown in this exhibit are not much bigger than the head of a two-penny nail, yet there are no enlargement photos for people to study, no contextualization of these items. They are things unto themselves. Further, I attended on opening weekend and my friends and I were overwhelmed by the crowds and layout of the exhibit. The photos I use are from the Museum and were taken during the pre-opening tour so the crowds are sparse. When we were there, the above area was shoulder-to-shoulder people and the line moved extraordinarily slowly. So slowly that a woman behind me actually started yelling at people to move along so others could see [a docent promptly came and quieted her down].
The room that holds this timeline exhibit has nothing else in it, leading to the observation that they could have split the exhibit and had half on one side of the room and half on the other, making the queue move faster and create a more engaging experience. This “one path through, regardless of queue” philosophy showed up again and again in this exhibit and while I’m sure it works great when attendance is at a normal level, in busy times it’s bound to cause frustration.
In another area there’s a beautifully done exhibit demonstrating the size of a typical house of the era:
Again, you can see there are no people, no sense of the life of this era, just an exhibit that budding archeologists would love and everyone else breezes on past. These are interesting items, no question, and it undoubtedly offers some insight into the life of a typical contemporary of Jesus, but I’d have much rather seen people, even in the mural, and perhaps replica items filled with typical foods and staples in addition to these actual finds.
Finally, you reach the actual Dead Sea Scrolls, shown in a huge circular display in the middle of a very large room:
Again, when we attended on opening weekend, there were so many people that this too was shoulder-to-shoulder and people moved at an incredibly slow pace. Also note that the design requires that you stand over and look down; tilting the display even 30-degrees would allow more than a single level of people to view it simultaneously, which would significantly help with the crowd flow.
The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves are nonetheless quite astonishing, fragments of a many thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that was assembled over years by painstaking archeological work. Not the kind of task you see Indiana Jones doing in his campus lab, that’s for sure, but the mainstay of all scientific work. That these scrolls are in such excellent shape (at least the ones exhibited) is astonishing after 2000 years. This also is where photographic enlargements with call-outs and explanations show up and are much appreciated.
It’s a nice alternative to jars and urns. Lots of jars and urns.
While I’m a huge fan of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit proves to be one of the less engaging exhibits. It’s a fascinating find and the information from the Scrolls have proven significant for understanding of the Bible and Old Testament, as well as the era. But it’s a dry, academic exhibit that misses the human element and consequently shifts the burden of engagement onto attendees. If you study the Bible, if you’re deeply religious, or if you’re fascinated by archeology and early civilizations, The Dead Sea Scrolls will capture your imagination. If you’re not, however, and if you’re younger, this will be quickly forgotten against the more engaging Bioluminescent Animals [more formally “Creatures of Light”] exhibit and the rest of the museum.
Disclosure: Tickets for the museum and exhibit were provided by the DMNS for the purposes of this review.
Photo credit: Denver Museum of Nature & Science. All images (C) 2018 DMNS. Used with permission.
Well written and well said, Dave. I agree, the exhibit had the potential for greatness, containing artifacts of the higest order — almost nothing else compares with the magnitude of importance of such a find. Until the Ark of the Covenant is uncovered and it lightning-bolt’s the life out of nazis seeking it’s power… most other real-life found artifacts sadly pale in importance. However, as an exhibit, this one left me wholly underwhelmed for all of the reasons you mentioned in your review. I’m not sure if the traveling exhibit or the museum, or both, are to blame, but I feel I could tour the artifacts as well, or perhaps better, online. Yes, it is impressive to look at writings that are thousands of years old, in person, but the whole exhibit very much had a scroll-to-the-right feel to it as we were forced to queue up and shuffle slowly past wall-mounted pieces and placards.