The Israeli Antiquities Authority announced earlier this month the finding of a “new” Dead Sea Scroll in the Judean desert.
Most news accounts tell only part of the story: the rest is far more interesting.
The “new scroll” (and both words belong in quotation marks) consists of dozens of tiny fragments, none larger than a thumbnail. Experts were able to piece together enough of the snippets to determine that they represent Zechariah 8:16-17 and Nahum 1:5-6, two prophets from the “Book of the Twelve.”
Scholars had plenty of time to assemble the jigsaw puzzle because the fragments were discovered in 2019 but kept secret until now so Israeli archaeologists could complete a 50-mile sweep of caves in the cliffs west of the Dead Sea.
The four-year project was an effort to head off looters who have ransacked many of the caves, destroying archaeological contexts and selling their finds on the illegal antiquities market.
This particular cave was in the steep southern wall of the Nahal Hevron, a large seasonal wadi that runs to the Dead Sea, midway between Qumran and Ein Gedi.
Pieces of the scroll in question have actually been “discovered” three times. The first was in the early 1950s, when Bedouin looters dug around in the cave and found fragments of it. Fortunately, they sold them to researchers in Jerusalem rather than to private collectors.
In the early 1960s, archaeologists led by Yigael Yadin excavated the same cave and found other bits of parchment from the same scroll, but obviously not everything.
The recently announced finds add to the collection of scroll fragments, which are easy to miss. Finding them is not as simple as looking for a tall jar filled with scrolls. It involves precarious climbs, lots of sweat and dusty digging, and then carefully sifting the dirt to search for the tiniest of finds.
The scroll in question was written on parchment by two different scribes. It is a Greek translation, quite different than the more common Septuagint. Though the text is written in Greek, the divine name YHWH was spelled with Hebrew letters.
The manuscript dates to about 50 BCE, so it was already old when brought to the cave by rebel Jews who hid out there during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 CE). Roman soldiers found their hideout, then laid siege and starved the occupants rather than attacking the cave while they were strong enough to defend it.
The bones of 40 victims were later found, some accompanied by ostraca indicating their names. When they were discovered during Yadin’s excavation in 1960, the site was nicknamed the “Cave of Horror.”
In antiquity, the cave was accessed from above by rope ladders. It’s more difficult now: archaeologists used mountain climbing gear to rappel down into the caves, hundreds of feet above the wadi floor.
The isolation of the caves – combined with a full bladder – contributed to the decision to conduct a thorough excavation.
Archaeologists in the field rarely have a bathroom nearby. When nature calls, excavators look for tall grass or find what privacy they can, and no one thinks anything of it.
When they were first exploring the cave before its recent excavation, Oriah Amichai, one of the team leaders, was squatting down to urinate when she noticed something different in the sand before her: it turned out to be the sole of a Roman sandal.
A man standing to relieve himself wouldn’t have noticed it, she said.
The presence of the sandal was an indication that there were discoveries yet to be made, so they undertook a full-scale excavation: the lack of a toilet proved serendipitous.
As they dug, the excavators found far more than a few scroll fragments, and things far older.
From the Roman period, they also found a cache of coins minted by Jews during the Bar Kokhba revolt, along with arrowheads and pottery.
Continuing to dig – for silt and dust cause cave floors to build up over time – they discovered the partially mummified body of a young girl who had been buried in a fetal position around 6,000 years ago. She was clutching a small bundle of cloth, and another cloth had been wrapped around her upper body, then tucked in.
And further down – not far from where a pit dug by looters had barely missed it – they uncovered a large and astonishingly complete woven basket dated to about 10,500 years old, the oldest known complete basket of its type.
Woven as a storage container during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period, the basket was large enough to hold about 25 gallons, and it was complete with a lid. Unfortunately, it was empty except for a little sand at the bottom, which is being analyzed for potential clues to what it might once have contained.
We may be technologically advanced in these modern days, but I never fail to be amazed at the genius of people who could weave an oversized basket 10 millennia ago, at the heart of people who carefully buried their dead 6,000 years past, and at the commitment of people who considered scripture so precious nearly 1,900 years back.
Life was different, but they were rocking it: long may their memory live.
Authors note: For a fascinating video illustrating the challenge of the dig, see this IAA video, embedded into an article at Smithsonianmag.com. An hour-long IAA webinar presentation can be found here.