The Race for the Next Dead Sea Scrolls, and Why We May Lose It

Decades after first ancient Jewish texts were found at Qumran, hundreds of caves around the Dead Sea could yield more. But we have to hurry

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A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 'We come to each new cave with zero expectations.'
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 'We come to each new cave with zero expectations.'Credit: Shai Halevy/Israel Antiquities Authority
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

A narrow path leads up to Qumran, a series of caves dotting the stone cliffs where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The mouth of a recently discovered cavity, Cave 53, is gaping but once inside the space is narrow and dark, like a rabbit hole. Following its most recent excavation, Cave 53 is all of 15 meters long and 80 centimeters high. Dr. Oren Gutfeld, an archaeologist with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who just finished his second excavating season at Cave 53, pointed to a wisp of straw. “This is almost certainly the remains of a mat from the Second Temple period,” he remarks. For a minute there, I’m breathless.

Caves 53 and 54 were discovered just recently, in 2017. True, they held no scrolls, just tantalizing clues that they might have in the past. Evidently robbers got there first

After 2,000 years of concealment and 70 years of competition between archaeologists and robbers to find new scrolls – is it even possible that any remain to be found? After a few hours in Qumran, an obsessive optimism comes easy. Every node in the limestone rock suddenly looks like the lip of a jar with hidden treasure inside. The dust burns one’s eyes, but Indiana Jones would never give up at this stage.

Cave 53 is one of about 500 caves between Qumran and Masada, some natural, some carved into the limestone cliff. It is in these caves that the search for Israeli archaeology’s Holy Grail – more ancient scrolls – is taking place.

The first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1946 or 1947, since which time the area has been combed over by scholars and thieves. But hope remains alive. Caves 53 and 54 were discovered just recently, in 2017. True, they held no scrolls, just tantalizing clues – including wrappings – that they might have in the past. Evidently robbers got there first.

The conversation with Gutfeld takes place at the entrance to the cave. In the two excavation seasons conducted in Cave 53, many non-scroll objects have been found, some of them valuable, some from prehistoric times and from the Second Temple era.

A view of Qumran.Credit: Moti Milrod

I asked if somewhere inside he expects, every time he begins to explore a new cave, to find scrolls. He looks at me and considers for a moment. “We come to each new cave with zero expectations. We try to understand the daily lives of those who used it,” Gutfeld says – then admits, “Almost every night I dream of finding a scroll. If we get lucky and find even one written line, that would be the best.”

Albeit scroll-less, every day of digging in the Judean Desert caves reveals new things about the material culture of people of the “Yahad” community (the cult that operated here), he says. “Discovering a scroll would be the ultimate, but it’s just as important to find things that shed light on who they were.”

'To many it seems obvious that everything that could be found has been found. But we proved that there are findings galore and that these excavations are very important'

There was a moment in the last season that Gutfeld uttered the words he had dreamed of: “Bring the scrolls kit.” It contains silk gloves and containers with hermetic seals to protect precious finds. “I was so excited I couldn’t speak,” he says. But the find turned out not to be a scroll after all.

Last week Gutfeld and his team began excavating Cave 52 on behalf of the university. Its mouth is at a difficult-to-reach spot on the upper part of the cliff. It’s harder to reach than Cave 53. Over the coming weeks they hope to find remains and clues from the 2,000-year-old cult. Perhaps they’ll even find a scroll.

Apocalyptic essays and life

The scrolls found over the past 70 years in Qumran are the most important Jewish cultural treasures on earth, says Adolfo Roitman, director of Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book. Pnina Shor, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, calls them “the most important archaeological find of the 20th century.”

The scrolls are primarily religious manuscripts containing 230 texts from all the books of the Bible except for the Book of Esther. They also contain non-biblical Jewish texts from the end of the Second Temple period, apocalyptic and ritualistic essays, and descriptions of daily life.

The fact that in 2019 explorations to find scrolls are still ongoing may sound surprising. Gutfeld thinks otherwise.

“To many it seems obvious that everything that could be found in the Judean Desert caves has been found, and they are empty. But in the last few seasons we proved that there are findings galore and that these excavations are very important,” he says.

“From the first bucket we took out of the cave, we’ve been sifting out pottery fragments. We’ve found vessels and organic material including hundreds of olive pits, dates, seeds and nuts. We’ve found ropes, jars, lids, an intact decorated bronze pot, a candle unique to the Qumran region, linen textiles that were probably used for wrapping scrolls. We found leather straps that were probably used to tie the scrolls. Bedouin who were here long before us apparently broke jars, untied the straps, pulled the scrolls out of their wrapping and took them.”

The problem is that world-class antiquities attract robbers like flies. To this day items from Qumran can be found offered for sale that had not been found in orderly archaeological excavations. In the seven decades since the original discovery, archaeologists have been competing with robbers, most of them local Bedouins. So far the Bedouins have been winning by landslide.

It was Bedouin shepherds who, in 1946 or 1947, discovered seven parchment scrolls covered with ancient Hebrew writing that had been hidden by members of a Jewish cult living in Qumran during the first century. The shepherds sold the scrolls to two merchants in Bethlehem. Prof. Eliezer Sukenik of the Hebrew University – the father of Yigael Yadin – bought three and the other four were sold for $250 to the head of the Syrian-Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem.

The archbishop took them to the United States and tried to sell them there. In 1954, Yadin, who had completed his term as the Israel Defense Forces’ second chief of general staff, noticed a newspaper ad that offered the four scrolls for sale for $250,000. These seven scrolls are on display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, and they considered the heart of ancient Jewish culture.

Following its most recent excavation, Cave 53 is all of 15 meters long and 80 centimeters high. Credit: Moti Milrod

The first archaeologists reached Qumran in 1949, the year after Israel’s establishment – but the northern Dead Sea area was under Jordanian control. Gerald Harding and Roland de Vaux (the British director of the Jordanian Antiquities Authority) excavated until 1956 and found 10 more caves with scrolls.

All told, more than 900 manuscripts were discovered, 90 percent of them in Cave 4. The famous Temple Scroll, containing biblical texts mostly from Exodus and Deuteronomy, and a description of a temple and temple rituals, was found in Cave 11; at 8.15 meters, it was the longest of the scrolls. Eighty percent of the scrolls were written on parchment and 20 percent were papyrus.

All the findings from the northern Dead Sea, at Qumran and at Wadi Murbaat as well, were taken to the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. In parallel robbers continued to comb the caves and removed additional scrolls, many of which were traded among collectors.

In the 1960s, Israeli archaeologists Yohanan Aharoni, Yadin and Pesach Bar-Adon excavated areas within the Green Line – at Ein Gedi, Nahal Hever and Masada. They found additional scrolls from the 1st to the 4th century C.E., most of them from the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 C.E.).

“The Bedouin won,” says Gutfeld. “It’s not an equal match. The impression conveyed by our archaeology teachers at university for years was that there wasn’t much left to do here. De Vauz, Harding and Jozef Milik had dug up everything and the story was basically over. That was a huge mistake. I’m not saying that because I’m certain there are more scrolls – of course I hope that we’ll find some, but it would be a mistake to think that. The caves have simply not been excavated in an orderly fashion. The Bedouin took what they found on the surface.

“Over the past two seasons we’ve dispelled the notion that there’s nothing to find. Even if the excavations will prove that there are no more scrolls, we’ve done something important,” he says.

For decades, in fact from the 1950s until now, exploration of the Judean Desert caves was largely neglected, with the exception of “Operation Scroll,” a quick survey carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1993 that documented dozens of caves. Now, Gutfeld says, vigorous action is needed to bridge the gap.

Unequal competition

American billionaire Steve Green is one of the people who changed the rules of the game. A devout Evangelist, Green is the owner of the Hobby Lobby chain and the founder of the Museum of the Bible in Washington. He is also a collector of sacred ancient manuscripts – which he displays in his museum. In 2009, he began buying up a huge amount of rare manuscripts from the biblical period, but apparently lacking provenance – proof of where the artifacts came from – would carry a cost. When I visited the museum in Washington a year ago, I was startled by a warning printed next to a piece of parchment inscribed with a verse from Genesis: “Researchers have doubts about the authenticity of this artifact.” Some months later, the parchment was ruled to be fake and the Bible Museum removed it from display, along with several other items.

I asked Yisrael Hasson, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, if, after 70 years, the search for more scrolls in the Judean Desert is nearing the end. To my surprise, Hasson felt quite the opposite.

“The desert is full of hiding places. Until we have thoroughly checked and mapped them all, we won’t declare the work finished,” Hasson says. “But the robbers are searching faster than we are. The only solution is to make it a national project backed by government resources. Only after we enter that process can we say whether there are more hidden scrolls. It is imperative that we grasp that the scrolls are our biggest and most significant cultural asset. The government must take responsibility.”

Are any excavations now underway? Hasson will not divulge what the Antiquities Authority is currently doing in the caves, presumably lest antiquities robbers, probably Bedouin from the West Bank in this case, might just be avid Haaretz readers. “Six months ago we excavated six caves and more recently we excavated two more caves in the northern Dead Sea area, but I won’t say more because I don’t want to give information to robbers,” he says. “We’re doing ‘low profile’ work to stay ahead of the competition.”

Inside a cave at Qumran.Credit: Moti Milrod

Gutfeld and Hasson also agree on another issue. Qumran’s location in the West Bank, far beyond the Green Line, is of no relevance. The importance of the scrolls and the fact that archaeological activity has been ongoing in the area for more than 50 years under the aegis of the Staff Officer for Archaeology in the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria resolves any question of whether it is permissible to excavate in the Northern Dead Sea area and to remove artifacts from an area that is not defined officially as being within the country’s borders.

Scrolls Syndrome

Should Oren Gutfeld’s dream come true and he finds another scroll, it would be delivered in a special kit to the Antiquities Authority’s scroll preservation lab.

Pnina Shor is the director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project, the unit dedicated to the preservation, digitization and curating of the scrolls. One of the women on her team donned blue gloves before showing us some of the artifacts: small pieces of several scrolls and then a large section of a first-century scroll on which I was able to read some verses from Psalms. Someone inscribed this text two thousand years ago and here we were reading it today.

A big part of the lab’s work goes into trying to remedy the poor preservation that continued through to the 1990s. Sometimes scroll fragments were taped together; some scroll pieces were affixed to glass plates, spread with shellac, or had notes scribbled on them.

“Nowhere else is there such a precious collection that has been so abused,” says Shor. “The intentions were good but the results are disastrous. We have to invent unique methods to handle this.” She takes pride in the cooperation the lab has developed with preservation experts from around the world.

Part of the effort is dedicated to carefully documenting the scrolls and ensuring that what is done with them today doesn’t damage them any further. To this end, for the past seven years, the fragments of scrolls in the collection have been photographed using a special system constructed just for this purpose. The lab is also conducting research on the composition of the parchment and the ink. Results are posted on the website established by the authority together with Google (, for the benefit of scholars and the public at large.

I ask Shor if she thinks that Gutfeld or some other researcher will find more scrolls. If she is still waiting for a new scroll to arrive.

“I dream about that, I admit it,” she says. “Anyone who deals with this develops a powerful emotional involvement. It’s the ‘Scrolls Syndrome.’ You better watch out.” Gufeld and Shor both promised to call me the moment a new scroll is discovered. They may have been joking, but I definitely heard a promise.