Cracking the code II: Digging for Temple treasure

The Copper Scroll may be a map to priceless Temple-era treasures. Yet those who pursue the quest have only found frustration.

Jim Barfield 248.88 (photo credit: )
Jim Barfield 248.88
(photo credit: )
The Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, Atlantis, the Philosopher's Stone. Whether the objects and locations of legend or reality, certain ancient mysteries arrest the imaginations of every generation. They are antiquities that refuse to be forgotten - remaining hidden enough to evade discovery but historically prominent enough to leave a smattering of clues. Many an explorer has fallen prey to the treasures' siren call, spending their lifetimes searching for the relic that promises to alter minds or bring great riches. The Copper Scroll is a relative newcomer to the modern treasure hunt. Part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, the Copper Scroll is unlike any of the papyrus documents, though not only for its copper plates. The Scroll reads like a treasure map, listing sixty-four hiding spots where tithes and vessels thought to be secreted from the Temple were stored for safekeeping. Over 50 years after archeologists found this unique copper document in a Qumran cave, only three explorers have dared to chase after the scroll's prize. Explorer Jim Barfield, whose claim of having unlocked the mysterious text was featured in last week's Jerusalem Post, and whose efforts continue until this day, was preceded by two other archeologists: John Allegro and Vendyl Jones. Both men risked their careers and reputations to dig for treasure that they had no guarantee remained. Allegro, a British scholar known for his controversial opinions on religion, was one of the original members of the publication team for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the first to translate the Copper Scroll. Allegro believed two dozen of the Scroll's locations were in the area of the Temple, and the rest were near Qumran. In 1959 Allegro excavated tombs in Jerusalem's Kidron Valley that he thought could be the same "Zadok's tomb" mentioned in the scroll. He applied for a permit through the Jordanian authorities to dig beneath the Temple Mount but was denied. Allegro then organized an expedition to Hyrcania, a Herodian fortress near the Dead Sea which had never been professionally excavated. He linked the ruins to his translation of the first line of the Copper Scroll: "the fortress in the Valley of Achor." At both sites Allegro lacked the proper equipment and stopped short of making a discovery. His colleagues from the scroll's publication team openly criticized Allegro's naïve ambitions and love for publicity. VENDYL JONES, a former Baptist minister from Texas, has spent the last 30 years searching for the Copper Scroll treasure. Jones has a unique take on the history of the scroll, believing that it dates back to the First Temple period, and that the treasure includes the "Ashes of the Red Heifer," "Breastplate of the High Priest" and the "Ark of the Covenant." Most academics believe the treasure is from the Second Temple period, and that the scroll never directly references those three Temple items. According to Jones's translation, the key landmark in the Copper Scroll is "the Cave of the Column," which he identified as a cave adjacent to Qumran that appears to have natural rock columns on its façade. Since 1972, Jones has conducted eight excavations at the site, all funded through donations from private individuals and staffed by volunteers. But a lifetime of searching has yielded just one small intact vessel, found in 1988, which - he claims - was part of the Copper Scroll treasure. ALTHOUGH JIM Barfield's excavation sites are very close to Allegro's fortress ruins and Jones's columned cave, he has interpreted the Copper Scroll in a way that is entirely his own. While reading the Copper Scroll translation from F. Garcia Martinez's The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, he glanced at an aerial photo of Qumran and noticed that the area contained several sites which seemed to match the scroll's descriptions. Qumran had stairs leading east, cisterns, aqueducts, a peristyle and a double entry pool. A former fire marshal with twenty years' investigative experience, Barfield quickly realized his find "was more than coincidence." Over the next six months he worked tirelessly to identify the 60 sites, all in or around Qumran. He then traveled to Israel with his research, and after meeting and impressing Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) director Shuka Dorfman, was even given a chance to enlist two of the agency's top archeologists. Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, who were in charge of the Qumran site, were skeptical at first. "We have dug all over Qumran," Magen said. "This stuff isn't there." Barfield, knowing the enormous depths specified in the Copper Scroll, asked "Have you ever dug below virgin soil?" Magen admitted that they hadn't and Peleg, staring at the maps, said, "I think he's got something here." Peleg, with Magen's consent, agreed to be the archeologist for the excavation. In April 2009, Peleg began the first phase of excavation, and in three days tested three of the sixty sites. Barfield, who was present in Israel at the time, left for the United States under the impression that when he returned for the second phase they would dig even deeper, and begin work at more sites. However, like those who chased the Copper Scroll treasures before him, Barfield may have come across an insurmountable obstacle. Without the cooperation and expertise of the IAA, the treasure - should it exist - could potentially remain hidden forever. Yet Magen, one of the leading archeologists on the project, has confirmed to Metro that the digging has ceased. "We did tests and we didn't find anything," Magen said. "There is nothing there." When asked why the permit for the excavation remained active, Magen clarified that while the dig was technically ongoing, Barfield's "theory did not hold up." "For 30 years, each person has come with their own theory," he added. "And they amount to nothing." UNTIL THE dig stalled in April, Barfield chose to keep a very low profile about his research, preferring the sites to be kept secret so the dig would not be jeopardized. Yet given recent developments, Barfield is going public with the information because he feels he has no other choice. "I only want these items to be found," Barfield answers when asked about his motives. "Even if I read in the news one day that the IAA did it without me, I would be glad that the items were returned to Israel." Shelley Neese is managing editor for The Jerusalem Connection Report (