Archaeologists Find 12th Dead Sea Scrolls Cave With Everything Inside but Scrolls

Shattered pottery jars over 2,000 years old and abandoned 20th-century pickaxes indicate that once, scrolls had been there. All that's left is one blank parchment.

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Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Archaeologists exploring a cave by the Dead Sea say they have proven that it once housed Dead Sea Scrolls from the Second Temple period. However, the ancient parchments are missing, presumably looted by Bedouins in the mid-20th century.

The cave lies in the stark desert cliff west of Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The team, led by Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with Dr. Randall Price and students from Liberty University in Virginia, say it should by right be numbered as Dead Sea Scrolls Cave No. 12.

Fault cliff and cave entrance on the left: Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12, identified by the presence of smashed pottery jars from the Second Temple period, and wrappings of scrolls. Just the scrolls themselves are missing.
Fault cliff and cave entrance on the left: Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12 Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

If they are right, it is the first new "scroll cave" to be identified in over 60 years.

Evidence that the cave once housed scrolls is indirect. A number of lidded pottery jars of a type typical of the Second Temple period between (530 BCE to 70 CE) were found concealed in niches along the walls of the cave, and deep inside a long tunnel at its rear, say the archaeologists.

Remnant of scroll found in Cave 12.
Remnant of scroll found in Cave 12.Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

But the jars were all broken and their contents were removed. Why accuse modern Bedouins? Because the archaeologists also found two iron pickaxe heads from the 1950s that had been left inside the tunnel, presumably for reuse.

Cave 8 had been the same - scroll jars but no parchments were found. At least none with writing. One jar in Cave 12 did contain a rolled up parchment, but it was blank.

Flint arrowheads found in Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12, from a prehistoric time.
Flint arrowheads found in Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12, from a prehistoric time.Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

"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," said Gutfeld. "The findings include the jars in which the scrolls and their covering were hidden, a leather strap for binding the scroll, a cloth that wrapped the scrolls, tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments, and more."

Ziad Abu Ganem and student filter material from Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12.
Ziad Abu Ganem and student filter material from Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12.Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

Prehistoric man slept there too

Aside from the shattered jars and scroll debris, the archaeologists found an elaborate stamp seal made of the semi-precious stone carnelian – and evidence that prehistoric man had once dwelled in these cliffside desert caves too.

Seal made of carnelian stone found in Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12
Seal made of carnelian stone found in Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12.Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

The Israeli desert seems profoundly inhospitable but the fact is that it's been sporadically inhabited since human species started moving out of Africa. The archaeologists' finding in Cave 12 include flint blades and arrowheads.

In 2016, archaeologists announced the genetic sequencing of barley seeds from 6,000 years ago, which had been found in an exceptionally inaccessible cave 100 meters below the lip of the ancient Masada fortress, near the Dead Sea.

It bears note that the archaeologists suspect that particular cave where the ancient grains were found can only be reached by climbing down a sheer cliff face, leading then to suspect that it served as somebody’s prehistoric refuge, rather than a regular residence.

Cloth that was used over 2,000 years ago to wrap the scrolls, left behind by looters.
Cloth that was used over 2,000 years ago to wrap the scrolls, left behind by looters.Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

Also, just this December, a different archaeological team announced finding new fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the Cave of the Skulls, also of course by the Dead Sea. The pieces are small and the writing on them is too faded to make out without advanced analysis. At this stage the archaeologists aren't even sure if they're written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic or another language.

The first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd who idly chucked a rock into a cave in the vicinity of Qumran. He heard the sound of breaking pottery, got curious and the rest is history. The Judean Desert hills have been kind to archaeological artifacts thanks to the aridity, which helped preserve organic material.  

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