Ever since Bedouin shepherds stumbled on the first fragments hidden in caves in the Judean desert back in the late 1940s, the Dead Sea Scrolls have ranked among the greatest archaeological finds of the past century. A collection of nearly 1,000 Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic manuscripts dating back to the fourth century B.C., the scrolls included the earliest surviving written fragments of the Hebrew Bible. Last week, an excavation led by Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the discovery of a new scroll-related cave at Qumran, in the West Bank—the 12th, to be exact, and the first to be successfully excavated in more than 60 years.

Though Bedouin shepherds first discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in Khirbet Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in late 1946 or early 1947, official excavations of the Qumran caves didn’t begin until the 1950s. By that time, looters had already gotten to the caves and removed many of the priceless ancient scroll fragments. Thousands of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, from more than 900 manuscripts, have been recovered from 11 different caves at Qumran, but only a relatively small number of those fragments were found during organized excavations.

Fragments of jars that contained stolen scrolls. (Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld)

Over the past 15 years, researchers noticed an increasing number of what they believed were scroll fragments appearing on the private art and antiquities market. Though many of the examples on the black market appeared to be fake, this resurgence prompted the IAA and researchers to begin their own survey of all the Qumran caves. At the same time, IAA authorities were apprehending a growing number of artifact hunters attempting to enter those caves, another development that led them to speed up their own excavations.

According to a news release from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the excavation that unearthed the newly discovered cave was part of “Operation Scroll,” a joint effort by the university, the IAA, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. Near the entrance to the cave, the researchers found pottery shards, including broken jars and lids they believe were used to store the scrolls. Alongside such items, they also discovered flint blades, arrowheads and semi-precious stone, suggesting the cave was used during the Neolithic period (which began in 10,200 B.C. and ended between 4,500 and 2,000 B.C.)

Neolithic flint tools found in the cave. (Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld)

In a particularly striking find, the archaeologists carefully extracted an unbroken storage jar. Inside was a relatively undamaged scroll. The team rushed it to the conservation lab at Hebrew University, where it was painstakingly unfurled in a protected environment. The scroll had no writing on it, and the researchers believe it was placed in the jar in order to prepare it for writing.

Beyond the entrance, the roof of the cave appeared to have caved in. Proceeding with caution, the archaeologists discovered the cave-in had most likely been intentional, as it hid a tunnel measuring some 16-20 feet in length. Inside the tunnel, they found more broken jars and lids, along with fragments of cloth wrappings, leather and string that they believe were used to bind the scrolls within the jars. Deep inside the tunnel at the rear of the new cave, the researchers found a pair of rusty pickax heads. Their findings support the longstanding theory that looters ransacked the cave back in the 1950s, stealing the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

The fault cliff, with the cave entrance on the left. (Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld)

“This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea Scrolls in 60 years,” said Dr. Oren Gutfeld, an archaeologist at Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology and director of the excavation. “Although at the end of the day no scroll was found…the findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen.”

In addition, the discovery of the ancient blank scroll certainly sheds some light on how high-quality forgeries of the Dead Sea Scrolls might be making their way onto the black market. The parchment recovered from the new cave will help experts assess fragments that come up for sale in the future.

Cloth that was used for wrapping the scrolls. (Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld)

Controversy has hovered around the excavation of Dead Sea Scroll sites, as Qumran is located in the West Bank, a territory Israel won from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Jordan has asserted on different occasions that it is the rightful owner of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Palestinians (and the United Nations) consider the West Bank occupied territory, and Israel signed a convention in 1954 that forbids excavation and removal of “cultural artifacts” by foreign occupiers. In any case, it seems highly unlikely that Israel will surrender its claim to what are believed to be the oldest written examples of the Hebrew Bible.

Excavations of other caves in the Judean desert will continue, say IAA officials, but time is running short. Israel Hasson, the director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, urged the Israeli government to gather the resources necessary and join forces with the public to launch a “systematic excavation” of all the caves in the region. According to Hasson: “We are in a race against time as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain.”