Discovered: More extensive excavation reveals 12th Dead Sea Scroll cave
In the late 1940s, young goat herders discovered a cave in the Judean Desert of Israel. The cave was burrowed into a hillside, like it had been eaten out by a giant termite. 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. The scrolls contained some of the oldest writings known to humans.
By 1956, archaeologists and nomadic Bedouin explorers reported finding 11 such caverns, all to the northwest of the Dead Sea near the region of Qumran.
Found: Evidence Of A New Dead Sea Scroll Cave
On Wednesday, Israeli and U.S. archaeologists announced they had found evidence for a 12th Dead Sea Scroll cave.
The scrolls they found were mostly written in Hebrew, though a few were in Greek and Aramaic, an ancient language. The scrolls' text dated back roughly 2,000 years. Best estimates suggest the authors inscribed their words at various points between the early first century B.C. and A.D. 70, known as the Second Temple Period. Many of these scrolls were found in tiny pieces, the size of a postage stamp. Even a tiny piece like this can fetch a huge sum of money at an auction.
But many believe the information on the old scrolls 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 For More New Caves Continues
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 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 an ongoing project called "Operation Scroll."
There was no new Dead Sea Scroll to add to the record. The scientists found nearly everything but a completed scroll. They found smashed and emptied jars, as well as a leather strap that could 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. Next to a smashed jar, explorers found a pair of iron pickaxe heads of the type used by roaming looters.
"Thank God they took only the scrolls," Gutfeld told The Post. "They left behind all the evidence that the scrolls were there."
Caves Had Been Used For 10,000 Years
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 stone called carnelian. Humans must have used the caves for at least 10,000 years, the archaeologist said, going back to 7000 or 8000 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 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 more precious antiquities. The effort will last for about another three years, Gutfeld told The Post, exploring some 300 caves. The archaeologists cannot afford to wait. The Israel Antiquities Authority has warned that looters are still looking for lost Qumran caves to plunder.
It's a race against time, as more looters are looking to capitalize on pieces of history, said Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "Finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered."