One of history's greatest archaeological finds was so improbable that it borders on the miraculous.
In 1947, a young Palestinian goatherder discovered a narrow cave entrance by the shores of the Dead Sea, in what is now Israel.
Unsure of what he might find, the boy first threw a rock into its shadows and heard something shatter. Entering, he found dozens of tall clay pots packed with ancient writings.
Known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the 972 parchments and papyrus fragments in this and other nearby caves contained some of the oldest surviving examples of Jewish scripture. Likely hidden from Roman authorities by the small, pious community that lived nearby, the scrolls had survived 2,000 years in the arid desert climate to provide scholars — and the world — with an extraordinary glimpse at the Bible and Judaism around the time of Christ.
And now the Philadelphia area may gaze onto that world as well. On Saturday, the Franklin Institute will open the doors on a remarkable exhibition, "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times."
The collection consists of more than 600 figurines, altars, coins, pottery, menorahs, bone boxes, and incense burners, and a giant stone from the Western Wall of the great temple of Jerusalem. The exhibition was created in cooperation with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the Discovery Museum, and the Franklin Institute. It will be open seven days a week through mid-October.
Visitors are welcomed to the exhibit with a "pre-exhibition experience" in a room lined with six giant TV-like screens showing the Dead Sea lapping at sunrise against its salt-encrusted shores. They then pass into the first of four mid-size exhibit rooms where they may view bronze arrowheads, glass cosmetic cases, ceramic masks, a wide variety of clay vessels, signature stamps known as "bullae," a grindstone, a ritual bath, an ancient balance scale, and a display of 30 baseball-size "slingstones" of the kind with which David is said to have slain Goliath.
But the heart of the exhibit is the large, round display table of 10 Dead Sea scroll fragments, the jewel of which is a small parchment containing the oldest surviving biblical account of creation: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. ..." Besides the five-month run at the Discovery Museum in Manhattan, this is the first time the Genesis scroll fragment will be on display in North America.
Like most of the other scroll pieces — including one describing Noah's death and another containing the famous lines from Isaiah that foresee a day when "the wolf shall live with the lamb" — the Genesis fragment is of dark amber hue and difficult to read in the dim light necessary to keep it from fading.
And should visitors gazing on that small, Hebrew script find themselves trying to imagine the culture that created these texts, they need only glance at the walls around them for a sense of how the people of the Middle East lived and worshipped two and three millennia ago.
One of the more surprising exhibits is a display of about 30 small, female clay heads thought to represent the goddess Asherah, whom scholars say the early Jews worshipped as the wife of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
"We have found thousands of these [Asherah figurines] throughout Jerusalem in houses built before the destruction of the First Temple" by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., explained Debora Ben Ami, iron age curator for the Israeli Antiquities Authority's national treasure collection, which owns the artifacts on display.
After the Babylonian king allowed the captured Jews to return to Israel, Ben Ami said, the prophets and priests sought to suppress the fertility cult of Asherah, and henceforth sacrificed exclusively to Yahweh. "But she [Asherah] remained a part of the folk religion because fertility was so important," Ben Ami said. "The Bible doesn't tell us everything about how the people lived."
Another feature of the exhibition that might attract special interest is the display of limestone ossuaries, or bone boxes, discovered 32 years ago in a cave in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot. Of the 10 small boxes, six were scratched with the names of the people whose bones they once contained. These names included "Miriam," or Mary; "Yose," a diminutive of Joseph; and "Jesus, son of Joseph."
While some writers and filmmakers speculate that the ossuaries might have contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, Ben Ami said the names were "very commonplace" in first-century Jerusalem. She said the Antiquities Authority views any assertion that the boxes belonged to the founder of Christianity or his family as "charlatanism."
Tickets to the exhibition are $31.50 for adults and $25 for students, which includes access to the rest of the museum. While pitched to adults — many artifacts and commentaries are displayed about five feet above the floor — Steven Snyder, the institute's vice president for exhibits, said parents are the best judges of whether a child will find the material accessible. "Kids have all kinds of fascinations," he said.
Institute officials said other museums have expressed interest in hosting the exhibition when it closes here Oct. 14, but that no decision has been as to where it will go next.