Exhibition honours a real-life 'Indiana Jones'

Bedouin shepherds came across a set of scrolls in an urn in a cave near the Dead Sea in 1947.

Now, the phrase 'Dead Sea Scrolls' is one everyone will be familiar with, even if they have little idea what it really means. But in 1947, no one had any idea whether the parchments were of value, as the meaning of the texts and their exact age were not immediately obvious.

One student however, who came to Jerusalem on the basis of a series of cagey phone calls to those in charge at the American Schools of Oriental Research, had something of a head start.

John Trever had graduated from Yale Graduate School in 1943 with a doctorate in the Old Testament, in particular the Book of Isaiah, specialising in ancient Semitic languages. He realised quickly that a part of the text in front of him was in fact from Isaiah.

Trever knew that the scrolls contained by far the oldest version of Old Testament documents, alongside other unique documents relating to Jewish culture and morality from a similar age.

Books of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls
The scroll of the Book of Psalms, with translation
(Click to enlarge)

But they were falling apart.

Jerusalem in 1948 was a time of terrible strife as Palestine was split, and fragments were shaken off the documents whenever a mortar bomb landed within a short distance of the building. Trever realised that he needed to use his skills as a photographer to preserve the text.

This required film, of course, but there was little on sale in Jerusalem whilst gunmen roamed the streets. Time and again, Trever set off to seek out as much as possible, weaving through streets trying to avoid gunfire. He set up an impromptu photographic studio and set to work.

Today, an exhibition in Trever's native Milwaukee celebrates his workin preserving the texts.

While the original scrolls remain invaluable, Trever's photographs are also regarded as essential for studies of the deteriorating parchments. His willingness to face danger in order to safeguard historical artifacts has seen him referred to as the Indiana Jones of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


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