Behind the Discovery: How a Dead Sea Scroll Was Found Three Times

Israeli archaeologists and looters are playing a game of cat and mouse in the Judean Desert around Dead Sea Scrolls ■ And: how a serendipitous bathroom break changed history

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Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists in the Judean Desert, finding the entrance of the Murbaa Cave.
Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists in the Judean Desert, finding the entrance of the Muraba‘at Cave.Credit: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

The newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll announced Tuesday is actually part of a scroll that has essentially been found three times, the Israeli archaeologists behind the momentous find explained to Haaretz.

On Tuesday, archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority unveiled new fragments from a Dead Sea Scroll as well as extraordinary finds from different periods going back to prehistory, all uncovered in a huge survey of caves in the Judean Desert. 

The scroll, a Greek translation of  the book of the Twelve Minor Prophets is a perfect example of the race between archeologists and looters to find ancient relics that were squirreled away thousands of years ago in caves surrounding the Dead Sea.

In fact it turns out that the newly-discovered fragments, found in the so-called Cave of Horrors, are part of a scroll that has essentially been found three times. The first part was found in the 1950s by Bedouin looters who sold it to researchers in Jerusalem. As a result, Israeli archaeologists investigated the cave in the 1960s and found other fragments of the text. And now, for the third time, fragments of this Minor Prophets scroll have emerged from the cave as part of a huge survey that the Israel Antiquities Authority initiated in order to thwart looters.

The idea to survey all the hundreds of caverns in the Judean Desert was born in 2016 after authorities apprehended a group of looters that had illegally excavated scroll fragments and other finds from the Roman period in the so-called Cave of Skulls, explains Eitan Klein, deputy head of the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit.

The discovery of the latest Dead Sea Scroll in Muraba‘at Cave.Credit: courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

“For decades we have been running after major groups of looters that target the Judean Desert and attempt to sell their finds on the illegal antiquities market, so we thought that we should try to cut off the problem at the source,” Klein tells Haaretz.

The survey, which is ongoing, has uncovered finds ranging from coins from the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the second century C.E., as well as sandals from the Roman period. But the star finds are perhaps the fragments of the Minor Prophets that were found in the Cave of Horror and which had apparently eluded both past looters and archaeologists, says Hagay Hamar, one the archaeologists that took part in the survey.

The new scroll segments were uncovered in 2019 but the discovery had been kept quiet until researchers could be sure there were no more finds in the cave that looters could set their hands on.

“Just like we follow them, the looters will follow us and dig in the sites we investigate,” Hamar tells Haaretz. “So we are engaged in a cat and mouse game with them.”

Another extraordinary find in the survey was a perfectly preserved basket woven 10,500 years ago, in a time before the use of pottery reached the region.

Archaeologists Hagay Hamer and Oriah Amichai sieving finds at the entrance to the Cave of Horror. Credit: Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority
The 10,500-year-old basket as found in Muraba‘at Cave. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

In the case of the Neolithic basket, which was found in Murabba’at Cave, the looters came dangerously close to hitting paydirt. The artifact, which may be one of the oldest surviving baskets ever found, was unearthed just a few centimeters from a pit that had been dug by looters in the cave, says Chaim Cohen, one of the archaeologists who excavated the site.

Some of the finds were even more serendipitous. For instance the decision to conduct a full excavation at the Cave of Horrors was born from a fortuitous bathroom visit by an archaeologist who was surveying the cave.  

“I crouched to pee and suddenly I saw something that didn’t look like sand, and I realized it was a sole of a shoe,” recalls IAA archaeologist Oriya Amichay, adding that her male colleagues probably missed it because they don’t need to crouch to relieve themselves. “At first I thought it was a sandal that belonged to one of the excavators from the 1960s and then I realized it was something much older and I started screaming for my colleagues and asking them to tell me I wasn’t dreaming,” she says.

What Amichay had found was a Roman-era sandal from nearly 2,000 years ago. And the discovery signaled to the team that there were still finds to be uncovered at the site – which led to a full excavation of that cave, and the discovery of the scroll fragments.

Needless to say, the looting of artifacts deals a double blow to heritage preservation efforts, experts say. Raiders will generally plow through a site to get to prized artifacts, often damaging other antiquities in the process. And even if the stolen materials are recovered by authorities, it’s often very hard to figure out where they came from and connect them to their original context.

Excavations in Muraba‘at Cave. Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“That is why it’s so important that we got to the scroll and to the other artifacts before the thieves,” says Ofer Sion, the IAA archeologist who is the scientific head of the project.

The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave outside the ancient settlement of Qumran. Since then, tens of thousands of fragments belonging to some  900 manuscripts have been found, dating to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E.

One insight that the newly found fragments have yielded is that this particular scroll was written by two different scribes, as evidenced by the different handwritings that penned the Greek text, Sion says.

The fragments, which contain parts of the books of Nachum and Zechariah, also include slight differences in the words used in the original Hebrew and the standard Greek translation, the so-called Septuagint, which was first penned in the Hellenistic period, says Oren Ableman, curator and researcher with the IAA.

These differences are very important for scholars because they tell us that the process of canonization of the Hebrew Bible was still not complete by the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. The different versions can therefore offer insight on the many sources and versions that were behind the creation of the Bible as we know it today.

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