A new Dead Sea Scrolls cave has been discovered -- and it might not be the last

New Dead Sea Scrolls caveCloth that was used for wrapping the scrollsArchaeologists Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia survey the cave.

In the rocky cliffs of Wadi Qumran, near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Virginia’s Liberty University have unearthed a remarkable discovery. For the first time in 60 years, they have found a new cave that they say their excavations show once held Dead Sea Scrolls, making the total number of Dead Sea Scroll caves 12 instead of 11 as was previously thought.

“This is one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries, and the most important in the last 60 years, in the caves of Qumran,” Oren Gutfeld, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology and director of the excavation, said in a Hebrew University press release announcing the news.

New dead sea scrolls caveCasey L. Olson and Oren GutfeldFault cliff and cave entrance on the left.

But their excavations also revealed that someone else got there first and looted the caves, removing the scrolls. Jars that once held scrolls were broken open, their contents removed. Iron pick axe heads from the 1950s were stored in the tunnel leading into the cave, which the researchers say indicate that Bedouins uncovered the site in the mid-20th century, removing the scrolls.

They left behind fragments of pottery, a parchment which had yet to be written on, cloth that the scrolls had likely been wrapped in, along with flint blades, arrowheads, and a decorative stamp that helps date the remnants in the cave.

Dead sea scrolls new discoveryCasey L. Olson and Oren GutfeldParchment that was being processed for writing but had not been written on.

“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.”

New Dead Sea Scrolls cave.Casey L. Olson and Oren GutfeldCloth that was used for wrapping the scrolls.

And in a way, this changes what we know about the scrolls, which date back to the Second Temple Period, about 530 BC to 70 CE. They include some of the first copies of Biblical texts and many other documents from that time period.

As Smithsonian Magazine has explained, these documents have revealed much of what we know about two major world religions and they have shed light on what life was like at that time: “The Dead Sea Scrolls — comprising more than 800 documents made of animal skin, papyrus and even forged copper — deepened our understanding of the Bible and shed light on the histories of Judaism and Christianity.”

Dead sea scrolls new caveCasey L. Olson and Oren GutfeldFragments of jars that contained stolen scrolls

Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have appeared on the “antiquity black market” over the years, according to CNN, which has driven researchers to scour the desert for hidden caves. The fact that a new cave exists means that what’s known about the origin of all known scroll fragments may be incomplete or inaccurate — some may not have come from previously known caves.

“This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea scrolls in 60 years. Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave,” said Gutfeld. “[W]e can no longer be certain that the original locations (Caves 1 through 11) attributed to the Dead Sea scrolls that reached the market via the Bedouins are accurate.”

New dead sea scrolls caveCasey L. Olson and Oren GutfeldFiltering materials from the cave.

This excavation, which the press release notes is part of “Operation Scroll,” indicates that more may be out there to be discovered.

“The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judean Desert and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered,” said Israel Hasson, Director-General of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in that same news release.

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