Every time Michael Johnson enters the high-security vault where the Dead Sea Scrolls are held in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, it feels a bit mystical — “like you’re going into the holy of holies,” he says. The parchment scrolls, many more than 2,000 years old, deteriorate rapidly when exposed to air and light, so his access is limited to once or twice a year. Johnson, an Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has mere hours to work through months’ of painstakingly prepared research questions during each of his visits to this white-domed repository at the Israel Museum.
Upon arrival, conservator Hasia Rimon unlocks and cranks open the vault’s huge steel door and leads Johnson into the scroll examination room. Through a set of glass doors he can see a climate-controlled storage area with floor-to-ceiling shelves of boxes containing the first Dead Sea Scrolls to be discovered in 1947 in Cave 1 at Qumran, located about 50 kilometres east of the vault. After an armed guard shuts and locks the door behind them, they settle in to work.