Hundreds of caves in the Judean Desert are still left to explore, offering a concrete possibility that new biblical texts will emerge, Israel Antiquity Authorities researchers said a day after it unveiled the first such discovery in over 60 years.
“The rescue operation is continuing,” said Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Looting at the IAA. “So far we have covered some 60% or 70% of the relevant area, which means that we still have about 40 km. of desert left. I believe there is work for another two or three years.”
Conducted by the IAA in cooperation with the Civil Administration’s Archaeology Department, the initiative launched in 2017 employs drones and mountain-climbing equipment to reach remote and inaccessible hollows.
Some 600 caves have already been surveyed and hundreds more are awaiting, Klein explained.
Asked whether he believes that more scrolls will be found, he said that he truly hoped so.
“One never knows, but I hope so, I hope we will be lucky,” he said.
Klein explained that some caves clearly have more potential than others, depending on their size and conditions.
“Sometimes we find ancient artifacts on the floor, sometimes we just feel it,” the scholar revealed.
Out of all the caves surveyed, the archaeologists have proceeded to excavate some 12 so far, and Klein believes that probably another 15-20 promising caves are going to be excavated in the future.
One of the reasons behind the initiative is protecting the antiquities from looters. The archaeologists have often encountered their traces, including holes they dug, and garbage and food remains.
“I became an archaeologist because this profession connects me to my country and my nation,” said Klein. “Entering a cave to find pieces of biblical scrolls – to think that 2,000 years ago other Jews brought them there, deeply touches me.”
Tuesday marked a landmark day for archaeology in Israel and the world, as researchers presented to the public the first fruits of a rescue operation to survey the caves of the Judean Desert where the renowned Dead Sea Scrolls were found, mostly in the 1940s and 1950s.
Reporters from major international news outlets took a break from covering the unfolding of the pandemic in Israel and the election campaign to gather at the IAA laboratories in Jerusalem.
There they were able to admire artifacts dating back 10,000 years, including a perfectly preserved basket, daily objects from the Roman period, and coins testifying to the last time the Jewish people exercised sovereignty in the land before the establishment of the State of Israel. And of course, they found out about new fragments of manuscripts carrying text from the biblical books of Zechariah and Nahum, perhaps the crown jewel of all the uncovered items.
The recent discoveries also brought excitement to the IAA Dead Sea Scrolls Unit, where researchers are also eager to see if new artifacts resurface.
“It would be great to get a few more pieces of the puzzle,” said Dr. Oren Ableman. “That’s obviously the greatest dream of scholars in my field.”
According to Ableman, the chances of finding new fragments in a cave are not high, but not insignificant. He added that conservators now know how to handle the scrolls better than in the past, and how to preserve them for posterity.
At the same time, new material might emerge not from the desert at all but rather from the technological advancements that have been allowing scholars to identify and decipher texts on parchment extremely deteriorated, which were previously considered irretrievable.
“This has represented quite a revolution in the field,” Ableman explained. “In the past, the photographs that scholars had were not always so good, and there were various parts where reading the texts was very difficult. And all of a sudden thanks to the multispectral imaging it has become possible [to read] in some cases, even texts that had previously been considered irretrievable.”