In the late 1940s, young Bedouin goatherds discovered a cave in the Judean Desert, bored like the path of a giant termite into the hillside. Within the cave the teenagers found something puzzling: ancient jars in rows. The jars held the first of the parchments that would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls’ discovery kicked off a search that lasted for nearly a decade. By 1956, archaeologists and Bedouin explorers reported finding 11 such caverns, all to the northwest of the Dead Sea near the region of Qumran.
On Wednesday, Israeli and U.S. archaeologists announced they had found compelling evidence for a 12th Dead Sea Scroll cave.
Mostly written in Hebrew, although a few were in Aramaic and Greek, the scrolls’ text dated back roughly 2,000 years. Best estimates suggest that the authors inscribed their words at various points between the early 1st century BC and 70 AD, known as the Second Temple Period. A postage-sized scrap of the scrolls — and most were found in such small pieces — can fetch a huge sum at auction.
But scholars of antiquity would argue that the information held within the scrolls, the psalms and religious texts from 2,000 years ago, is priceless. These scrolls, which include sections of the Hebrew Bible and the earliest known version of the Ten Commandments, have been hailed as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.
The search still continues, decades later. “It is the first time in 60 years we have the first evidence of a new scroll cave,” Oren Gutfeld, a researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology, told the Washington Post by phone Thursday morning. “We knew about 11 caves, and now we have 12.”
The cave had been mapped as part of a cursory survey in 1992. But the new evidence comes from a more thorough excavation. Gutfeld and his colleagues at the Hebrew University, along with a team led by archaeologist Randall Price, from Virginia’s Liberty University, found the cave as part of the ongoing “Operation Scroll.”
There was no new Dead Sea Scroll to add to the record. The scientists found nearly everything but a completed scroll. The paraphernalia included smashed and emptied jars, as well as a leather strap of the type that would have bound a scroll together.
Thieves had beaten the archaeologists by more than half a century. The cavern was looted 60 years ago, Gutfeld said, during the rush to find the other Qumran caves. A telltale pair of iron pickaxe heads, of the type used by Bedouin looters, was found next to a smashed jar.
“Thank God they took only the scrolls,” Gutfeld told The Post. “They left behind all the evidence that the scrolls were there.”
Although it had been plundered, the cave still had stories to tell. Gutfeld said the cave contained ancient arrowheads, flint knives and a seal made from a carved semiprecious stone called carnelian. These artifacts predated the scrolls’ Second Temple Period; humans must have used the caves for at least 10,000 years, the archaeologist said, going back to the 8th or 9th millennium BC.
At one point during the excavation, Gutfeld found a small, tightly rolled piece of fabric. It took several days of careful laboratory work to unroll the scrap, only to discover that the roll was blank. The fabric was in the process of becoming scroll parchment, Gutfeld said. The ancient Hebrew people who placed the jars in the caves “still needed to do some processing.”
Operation Scroll will continue to the desert northwest of the Dead Sea, in the hopes that the rough hills might hold additional precious antiquities. The effort will last about three more years, Gutfeld told The Post, exploring some 300 caves. The archaeologists cannot afford to tarry. The Israel Antiquities Authority has warned that looters are still looking for lost Qumran caves to plunder.
“We are in a race against time as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain,” Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement. “Finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered.”
More from Morning Mix: