Archaeologists Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia survey the cave.
(photo credit: COURTESY OF CASEY L. OLSON AND OREN GUTFELD)
After years of fruitless searches for further Dead Sea scrolls in caves on the cliffs near the historic body of water, archeologists on Wednesday claimed to have evidence of a 12th cave, which once held hidden scrolls from the Second Temple period.
However, after excavating the ancient hollow, located near the sea’s northwestern shore, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers concluded that the additional scrolls were looted by Beduin in the middle of the last century.
The archeologists, including Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia from the university’s Institute of Archeology – aided by Dr. Randall Price, and students from Liberty University in Virginia – are the first in more than 60 years to have discovered a new scroll cave.
“Numerous storage jars and lids from the Second Temple period were found hidden in niches along the walls of the cave and deep inside a long tunnel at its rear,” recalled Gutfeld.
Archeologists vs robbers in race to find Dead Sea scrolls in June 2016, preventing archeology and antiquities theft(credit: REUTERS)
“The jars were all broken and their contents removed, and the discovery toward the end of the excavation of a pair of iron pickax heads from the 1950s, stored within the tunnel for later use, proves the cave was looted.”
Until recently, it was believed that only 11 caves had contained the coveted scrolls.
Scholars say that like “Cave 8,” in which scroll jars but no scrolls were found, this cave will receive the designation Q12 (the Q=Qumran, standing in front of the number to indicate no scrolls were found).
“This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea scrolls in 60 years,” said Gutfeld, who directed the dig. “Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave.”
Despite not finding more scrolls, Gutfeld said the evidence uncovered in the cave unequivocally confirms it once contained the documents.
“Although at the end of the day no scroll was found, and instead we ‘only’ found a piece of parchment rolled up in a jug that was being processed for writing, the findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen,” he said.
“Those findings include the jars in which the scrolls and their coverings were hidden, a leather strap for binding the scroll, a cloth that wrapped the scrolls, tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments, and more.”
The finds from the excavation also include fragments of scroll wrappings, a string that tied the scrolls, and a piece of leather that was a part of a scroll, he said.
Gutfeld added that relics of pottery, numerous flint blades, arrowheads and a decorated stamp seal made of carnelian (a semi-precious stone), also revealed that the cave was used in the Chalcolithic and Neolithic – Bronze and Stone Age – periods.
“This first excavation to take place in the northern part of the Judean Desert as part of ‘Operation Scroll’ will open the door to further understanding the function of the caves with respect to the scrolls, with the potential of finding new scroll material,” he said.
“The material, when published, will provide important new evidence for scholars of the archeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea caves.”
While lamenting the theft, Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, contended that the discovery bodes well for future finds.
“The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judean Desert – and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered,” said Hasson.
“We are in a race against time, as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain. The State of Israel needs to mobilize and allocate the necessary resources in order to launch a historic operation, together with the public, to carry out a systematic excavation of all the caves of the Judean Desert.”
The excavation was supported in part by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and Israel Antiquities Authority. Its findings are now part of the new “Operation Scroll,” launched by Hasson to undertake systematic surveys and to excavate the caves in the Judean Desert.