The only four people in the world allowed to touch the 2000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls are battling a resilient enemy: Sticky tape.

Their weapons: tweezers, tiny brushes and infinite patience.

"I don't consider it as work, I consider it as a blessing," says Tanya Treiger as she runs a scalpel-like instrument around the contours of a small piece of parchment with slow, deliberate and sparing movements.

Ms Treiger is one of four women, all immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in charge of the conservation and restoration of the famed scrolls found half a century ago on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Their job is to ensure the manuscripts on show are exhibited in ideal conditions and to restore the tens of thousands of fragments that suffered not only from the ravages of time but also from past conservation efforts.

Day after day for the past 18 years, they have painstakingly removed adhesive tape that was used decades ago to join matching fragments.

"Scotch tape was just invented and at the time it sounded like a good solution," says Pnino Shor, who heads the Department of Artefacts Treatment and Conservation at the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

"But in the 1960s it became clear it was a disaster," she says. "Residues of tape penetrated the parchment and caused its disintegration."

The conservators, working at a small IAA lab at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, will need at least another 18 years to complete the job of restoring the fragments, says Mr Shor.

"What they're doing is really a first-aid treatment," she says pointing to one of the women dabbing tiny amounts of organic solvent to remove tape residue and adhesive that has penetrated the parchment.

"If we're lucky, it comes back to life and the writing becomes clearer." Once the fragments are treated, they are arranged on acid-free cardboard, and stored in protective boxes.

Those prepared for exhibition, are placed in polyester netting pockets enclosed between polycarbonate plates.

The fragments are considered one of the world's most important archaeological finds, and make up about 900 documents of major religious and historical significance.

Discovered between 1947 and 1956 in the Qumran caves above the Dead Sea, the precious parchments and papyrus include religious texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and the oldest known surviving Old Testament.

The oldest of the documents dates to the third century BC and the most recent to about 70 AD, when Roman troops destroyed the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

"They were all written in a crucial period of history of western civilisation when Judaism and Christianity were crystallising into the religions we know today," says Mr Shor.

"The scrolls teach us of our common origins."

The artefacts are housed at the Israel Museum, where the larger pieces are shown at the dimly-lit Shrine of the Book on a rotation basis to minimise damage from exposure.

When not on show, they are kept in a dark, climate-controlled storeroom in conditions similar to those in the Qumran caves, where the humidity, temperature and darkness preserved the scrolls for two millennia.

"If we can preserve them for 2,000 years more we will have done our share," says Mr Shor.

The custodians of the scrolls are extraordinarily careful in lending some of the parchments for exhibits outside Israel.

They are particularly concerned that utmost care is taking in packaging and shipping, and that conditions replicate those of the Shrine of the Book.

Another concern is Jordan's claim of ownership.

Jordan says Israel seized the scrolls from a museum in east Jerusalem in 1967 when it occupied that part of the city and the West Bank, which were then under Jordanian control.

Israel has laughed off the claims, insisting the scrolls are an intrinsic part of the Jewish religious, cultural and historic heritage, and have no connection whatsoever to Jordan.

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