Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brilliant French electricity corporation

Everybody in France is familiar with EDF: Electricité de France. They're the national electricity utility, whose shares were recently made available to private investors. We think of EDF as the athletes who climb up poles after storm damage, the engineers who play around with hydroelectric dams, or their colleagues who operate France's well-known network of nuclear reactors.

Well, believe it or not: EDF is also a state-of-the-art researcher in the exotic domain of Dead Sea Scrolls archaeology. It's a long story, which I'll try to summarize...

In 1952, in the caves above Qumran, searchers on the lookout for parchments—mostly leather, sometimes papyrus—came upon two mysterious rolls of copper, known today as 3Q15, the Copper Scroll.

Needless to say, researchers were totally unaccustomed to handling ancient stuff of this kind. Finally, after much discussion, the scholars sent the rolls to the Manchester College of Technology in England, where they were cut into rectangular sections. Photos of these strips then enabled a Polish ex-priest and scrolls expert, Josef Milik [whom I had the pleasure of meeting personally, fifteen years ago, in his Paris flat], to produce a first edition of the astonishing contents of the Copper Scroll. Without going into details, let's say that the Copper Scroll seems to describe vast quantities of gold and silver that might even be the mysterious treasure of Herod's temple in the Holy City, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.

Readers might be asking by now: How, when and where does France's high-tech electricity organization step into this ancient picture? Well, on the outskirts of Paris, EDF has an avant-garde laboratory called Valectra, which is no doubt one of the world's most advanced workshops for handling ancient metallic specimens such as the Copper Scroll. Today, two bulky and expensive books relate, in French, the story of the extraordinary collaboration between Biblical scholars and EDF scientists, culminating in the restoration and preservation of the Copper Scroll... not to mention its translation. You can also use Google to find many documents describing this fantastic intellectual and industrial adventure. Probably the most spectacular aspect of the EDF Copper Scroll project has been the production of perfect metallic replicas, enabling scholars and museum-goers throughout the world to come face-to-face with artifacts that resemble ideally the real thing.

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