On Saturday, 4 August 1883, a brief update on the examination of the leather pieces appeared in The Athenæum in the Literary Gossip column.[1] It read:

“The examination of the pieces of leather which Mr. Shapira has brought to London is proceeding, but no conclusion can yet be hazarded. The skins are fifteen in number, and most of them are folded in two or more pieces. For convenience they have been numbered. The first has three folds, the second one, the third two, the fourth three, the fifth two, the sixth one, the seventh one, and so on. There are in all forty folds. Each piece of leather is about three and a half inches wide, and each fold is from six to seven inches long, and contains from nine to ten lines of writing. The writing seems not to be a picked alphabet, but current, and this is in favour of the genuineness of the documents. It is pretty clear that, whatever the age of the leather, the writing must either date from somewhere about B.C. 800 or from A.D. 1880. There is no middle term possible. So far is yet deciphered the fragments are portions of Deuteronomy.”

A correspondent writes: –

“There were apparently only two kinds of characters used in Palestine for writing, viz., those of the Siloam inscription and the Samaritan characters used for coins. If the fragments of Deuteronomy which Mr. Shapira has acquired from a Bedouin are written in the characters of the Moabite stone, they will prove of a still greater importance, since they evidently contain a fragment of a Moabite Deuteronomy. This will, perhaps, explain the reason for their being eleven commandments, as stated by the Palestine Exploration Fund. It is marvellous how sheepskin could be preserved during 2,500 years in any other country than Egypt.”

Also on 4 August 1883, the manuscript was undergoing an examination by chemist and mineralogist Dr. Walter Flight. A letter addressed, “British Museum (Natural History), Cromwell Road, South Kensington, S.W.,” and dated Saturday, 4 August 1883, reported Dr. Flight’s assessment of the blackish substance on the leather strips.[2] He wrote:

“Dear Mr. Bond,

As regards the strips of skin, brought home by Shapira and alleged to be a very early manuscript of Deuteronomy, I have not much to say. The black colouring matter, taken from the back and front of the skins, does not appear to be asphaltum but rather wax, like bee’s-wax, of a very impure dirty kind. It leaves an ash amounting to 10 to 15 percent. It readily melts and, when destroyed by further heating, does not emit the smell of asphaltum. It is very variously acted upon by different solvents: hydrogen-peroxide is almost without action; cold alcohol has hardly more action; and cold ether much the same action; spirit of turpentine has a considerable solvent action; benzol has much action; and so has chloroform, still more so. But the most active solvent of all is carbon-bisulphide. I believe, if the surface should be cleaned and all the character laid bare that chloroform would be the best agent to employ and that all the writing could thus be exposed clearly.

But what struck me, most of all, was the bright fresh look of the margin of the buff-coloured leather on one piece! It looked quite like leather which had been prepared within the last five years.

The hydrocarbon attached to the other manuscript, from Dr. Birch’s Department, which bore the label 1835-Salt-834 is very different; it is very brittle and is difficult to melt. And when burnt it gives off a smell much more like the mineral fatty bodies.

Believe me, yours truly, Walter Flight”

While in London, Mr. Shapira stayed at the Cannon Street Hotel, a five-story Italianate edifice modeled on sixteenth-century Renaissance architectural style. Over the weekend, he read the newspaper reports published in The Times and The Jewish Chronicle, some of the details of which concerned him. On Monday, 6 August 1883, he would address his concerns to Dr. Ginsburg in a letter addressed, “Dear Dr.!”

[1] “Literary Gossip,” The Athenæum, no. 2910, 4 August 1883, 147. For more information and the context of these reports in the unfolding Shapira Saga see, Ross K. Nichols, “The Hero of the Hour,” in The Moses Scroll, (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2021), 53-56.

[2] The letter containing the report of Dr. Flight is contained in “Papers Relative to M.W. Shapira’s Forged MS. Of Deuteronomy (A.D. 1883-1884),” Add. MS. 41294 (London: British Library).