In a stunningly rare discovery, dozens of 2,000-year-old biblical scroll fragments have been excavated from Judean Desert caves during a daring rescue operation. Most of the newly discovered scroll fragments — the first such finds in 60 years — are Greek translations of the books of Zechariah and Nahum from the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets, and are written in two scribal hands. Only the name of God is written in Hebrew in the texts.
The fragments from the Prophets have been identified as coming from a larger scroll that was found in the 1950s, in the same “Cave of Horror” in Nahal Hever, which is some 80 meters (260 feet) below a cliff top. According to an Israel Antiquities Authority press release, the cave is “flanked by gorges and can only be reached by rappelling precariously down the sheer cliff.”
Along with the “new” biblical scroll fragments from the Books of the Minor Prophets, the team excavated a huge 10,500-year-old perfectly preserved woven basket — the oldest complete basket in the world — and a 6,000-year-old mummified skeleton of a child, tucked into its blanket for a final sleep.
Since 2017, the IAA has spearheaded an unprecedented rescue operation to salvage ancient artifacts from caves throughout the Judean Desert against the rampant looting that has occurred in the area since the much-heralded — and lucrative — discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Bedouin shepherds some 70 years ago. On Tuesday morning, a sample of the dazzling discoveries were unveiled for the first time.
“The desert team showed exceptional courage, dedication and devotion to purpose, rappelling down to caves located between heaven and earth, digging and sifting through them, enduring thick and suffocating dust, and returning with gifts of immeasurable worth for mankind,” said Israel Antiquities Authority’s director Israel Hasson, who led the widespread rescue operation, in an IAA press release.
“The newly discovered scroll fragments are a wake-up call to the state. Resources must be allocated for the completion of this historically important operation. We must ensure that we recover all the data that has not yet been discovered in the caves before the robbers do. Some things are beyond value,” Hasson said.
In an optimistic attempt to be one step ahead of looters, the inter-departmental national project was launched in 2017 to survey Judean Desert caves. A few promising caves were subsequently excavated at some colorfully named locations, including the Cave of Horror — where over 40 skeletons have thus far been uncovered — and the Cave of Skulls. About 20 more promising caves could be excavated in the next stage of the operation, provided the budget is allocated.
The operation was undertaken by the IAA, in cooperation with the Staff Officer of the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, and funded by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage. About half of the Judean Desert, including the original source of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, is located in the West Bank beyond the Green Line.
“For years we chased after antiquities looters. We finally decided to pre-empt the thieves and try reaching the artifacts before they were removed from the ground and the caves,” said Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit.
So far, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) and 500 caves have been systematically surveyed by three teams led by IAA archaeologists Oriah Amichai, Hagay Hamer and Haim Cohen. Ganor estimates that about 25 percent of the Judean Desert has not yet been surveyed. Using drones and high-tech rappelling and mountain-climbing gear, archaeologists and a team of volunteers from pre-military academies have been able to access many hitherto “unreachable” caves — some of which hadn’t been entered by a human being for almost two millennia.
The biblical scrolls are among the highlights of the newly excavated artifacts, but are by no means the only extraordinary discoveries:
‘New’ biblical scrolls
Looters and archaeologists alike have combed the Judean Desert since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls some 70 years ago. Aside from two silver scrolls engraved with the biblical Priestly Blessing (from the late 7th to early 6th century BCE) discovered in Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered the earliest known copies of the biblical books and span from circa 400 BCE to 300 CE.
The latest identified finds, two dozen 2,000-year-old biblical scroll fragments from the books of Zechariah and Nahum, were discovered in clumps and rolled up in the Cave of Horror. The conservation and study of the fragments was conducted by the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Unit under Tanya Bitler, Dr. Oren Ableman and Beatriz Riestra.
The team has so far reconstructed 11 lines of Greek text that was translated from Zechariah 8:16–17, as well as verses from Nahum 1:5–6. They join nine, much more extant fragments that were discovered by Yochanan Aharoni, who first surveyed the Cave of Horrors in 1953.
On the new fragments, as well as in the Greek translation scroll discovered by Aharoni, only the name of God appears in Hebrew. It is written in the Paleo-Hebrew script used during the First Temple period, as well as by some adherents of the Bar Kochba revolt (132–136 CE), including on coinage, and in the Qumran community.
Among the academic fruit already born of the new discovery is the realization that the “new” Greek translation is different from the traditional Masoretic texts.
“These differences can tell us quite a bit regarding the transmission of the biblical text up until the days of the Bar Kochba Revolt, documenting the changes that occurred over time until reaching us in the current version,” said the IAA.
Oldest basket in the world
IKEA would do well to take note of the craftsmanship shown on a stunning woven basket dating from some 10,500 years ago — some 1,000 years prior to the first known pottery vessels — which was hailed by the IAA as “currently unparalleled worldwide.”
The massive 90-100 liter (24-26 gallon)-volume receptacle was discovered by youth volunteers from the Nofei Prat pre-military leadership academy. The exciting discovery took place in one of the Muraba’at Caves, which have previously offered up caches of Roman-era papers and Bar Kochba Revolt remnants, which are found in the Nahal Darga Reserve.
The basket is being studied by the IAA’s Dr. Naama Sukenik and Dr. Ianir Milevski and was dated using carbon-14, by Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto of the Scientific Archaeology Unit of the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Due to the arid climate of the region, the huge Pre-Pottery Neolithic period basket, woven in a unique style from plant material, was preserved whole. “As far as we know, this is the oldest basket in the world that has been found completely intact and its importance is therefore immense,” said the IAA.
Unfortunately, the basket was discovered empty. “Only future research of a small amount of soil remaining inside it will help us discover what it was used for and what was placed in it,” said the IAA.
Some 6,000 years ago, a parent tucked his child in with a blanket for its eternal sleep. The complete skeleton is being researched by the IAA’s Ronit Lupu and Dr. Hila May from the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine, who estimate it was 6-12 years old, based on a CT scan.
Fittingly, the cloth-wrapped child was discovered in the Cave of Horror. According to prehistorian Lupu, after moving two flat stones, the team discovered that a shallow pit had been intentionally dug beneath the stones that held the child’s skeleton, which was placed in a fetal position and covered with a cloth around its head and chest.
“It was obvious that whoever buried the child had wrapped him up and pushed the edges of the cloth beneath him, just as a parent covers his child in a blanket. A small bundle of cloth was clutched in the child’s hands,” said Lupu. Due to the arid conditions in the cave, the child was naturally mummified. The cloth and other organic materials, including hair and even skin and tendons, were likewise preserved.
Bar Kochba stash and cache
Several of the caves offered random finds left behind by Jewish rebels who fled to the caves at the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, including a cache of coins that were overstruck with Jewish rebels’ symbols such as a harp and a date palm, an array of arrowheads and spearheads, pieces of woven fabric, sandals and lice combs, which illustrated the everyday items taken by the fleeing Jews.
Ofer Sion, head of the IAA’s Surveys Department, said, “The high cliffs of 300-400 meters [985-1,300 feet] in a single drop with these enigmatic ravines that no one reaches were the ultimate haven. And in one period in human history, families fled to the caves in the Judean Desert, and we really don’t know anything else.”
Archaeologist Oriah Amichai explained that the families clearly planned what they would be taking from home, “when one day, when the war will be finished, what they will be able to use to build a new life. We come here and reconstruct the lives of those who didn’t survive in the end,” she said.
The ongoing operation intends to continue searching for vestiges of the past that connect with all Israeli citizens, regardless of creed. As emphasized by Avi Cohen, the CEO of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, “These finds are not just important to our own cultural heritage, but to that of the entire world.”
This article first appeared in The Times of Israel, an Israeli based online newspaper.