It hasn’t happened since 1956, but Israeli archaeologists are announcing the discovery of a new cave – the 12th so far – used by Jews of the Second Temple era to hide scrolls containing copies of the Hebrew Bible and other texts.
“This is one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries, and the most important in the last 60 years, in the caves of Qumran,” said Oren Gutfield of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology, co-discoverer with his colleague Ahiad Ovadia.
The discovery and excavation were part of “Operation Scroll,” a program of the Israel Antiquities Authority to systematically survey the Judean Desert to identify all its caves and to explore them.
The present find was the initiative of one Operation Scroll volunteer, Professor Randall Price who serves on the faculty of Liberty University, that brought about the excavation of the cave that had been briefly examined in 1993.
Price received permission last year for the excavation he helped carry out with Liberty University volunteers last month with Gutfield and Ovadia.
The new discovery, designated Q12, revealed that at one time, the cave had contained scrolls but all had been looted, as determined by a pair of iron pickax heads from the 1950s found at the site. But storage jars and lids like those found in other Qumran caves were present, though broken and emptied.
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Evidence of looting raises questions about the provenance of scroll fragments attributed to the previously known caves. In October 2016, the IAA unveiled a 4.3 inch by 1 inch papyrus fragment carbon seized from looters and dated to the 7th century B.C. that contained the oldest-known mention of Jerusalem in Hebrew.
“This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea scrolls in 60 years. 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,” said Gutfeld.
“Finding this additional scroll cave means we can no longer be certain that the original locations (Caves 1 through 11) attributed to the Dead Sea scrolls that reached the market via the Bedouins are accurate.”
In addition to the broken storage jars, fragments of cloth that once wrapped scrolls, a string used to bind the scrolls and a piece of worked leather that was a part of a scroll were found. Pottery chards, flint blades, arrowheads and a stamp seal made of semi-precious carnelian revealed human activity in the cave going back thousands of years before the it was used to hide holy Scripture.
“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.”
The find is the first success for Operation Scroll and is seen as evidence more biblical material may still remain, untouched, hidden in the Judean desert.
“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 Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“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.”