Monday, December 31, 2012

Raiders of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Dr. Jones & the Case of the Fishian Tablets

Before the Christmas holidays, I got in town just in time to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Fort Worth.  Last year, Google announced their sponsorship of the project to digitize the scrolls.  Consequently, the most important site for study of the scrolls now is the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.  Instead of succumbing to the easy out of making directly for the Wikipedia article, I invite you to check out some of the links below to learn more.

Naturally, the trip excited not so much any temptation I entertained as a young man to devote myself to textual criticism (God bless those so committed, who preserved me from such an occupation that would have strained my eyes and likely driven me insane), but the ol’ mythopoeic mind.  These old scrolls, fragile and some incredibly difficult to read, are worth an incredible amount of money even in fragmentary condition.  So, take away #1: scrolls are treasure.  Sound familiar, gamers?  Spell-casting classes certainly value scrolls for their ability to replicate spell-casting and as supplements to the power of such classed characters.

DSS scholarship is, among other things, one of the most massive efforts in human history to reconstruct the texts that were represented in the scrolls.  Technology has gone a long way to extend naked human powers in recovering texts that would have otherwise been unrecoverable.  What would things be like in another world, one in which these were magical texts and the reader had the ability to cast Read Magic?  I like the idea of ancient scrolls that were in such a condition that only by casting Read Magic could the spells on them be accessed.  I like to imagine illegible characters on a darkened parchment clearly shining with arcane power and lacunae caused by insects or environment being filled-in by ghostly runes.  Take away #2: Read Magic could be cool in-game.

Biblical texts, compendiums and commentaries on biblical texts, and other texts which governed the DSS community make up the majority of the scrolls.  But a stand-out among them is the Copper Scroll.* That’s right, not a scroll of parchment (animal hide) or papyrus (the ANE forerunner of paper)—or other likely candidates as needed according to milieu such as rice paper, stone, or clay—but of copper.  And unlike the other texts, the Copper Scroll is essentially a verbal treasure map for multiple locations.  Take away #3: Get creative with the materials of special scrolls.  And take-away #4: Yes, sometimes scrolls can be treasure maps or media to provide other sorts of clues or information that PCs need.  (In addition to the image above, check out this portion of the scroll before cleaning.)

As always, I advocate learning more about our own world to inform our construction of other worlds.  A cache of texts could make an entire treasure horde.  And if Doctor Who and Avatar the Last Airbender are heeded, a library can make a great adventure setting.  I once GMed an adventure in which an ancient culture put all of their secrets in symbolic knot-work (inspired by Incan Quipu) that were preserved on frames in their treasure vault, protected by a dungeon complex.  What creative uses have you made or seen of texts as treasure?

Happy last Mythopoeic Monday of 2012, and to all Ramblers and readers, a very Happy New Year!

*And yes, Jim Barfield sounds kind of crazy to me.  Have fun!

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