12th Dead Sea Scrolls Cave Found, But The Scrolls Are Gone

A possible new location of ancient Biblical manuscripts has been found at Qumran—but where did the scrolls go?

For the first time in more than 60 years, archaeologists in Jerusalem have discovered a cave they think once housed Dead Sea scrolls—ancient biblical manuscripts that date back to 4th century BC.

Many scholars credit Dead Sea Scrolls as the most important archaeological manuscript discovery of the 20th century. These parchments contain many of the earliest versions of biblical texts, making it a priceless historical record. These days, even a speck of a scroll can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at an auction.

The manuscripts were stored in clay jars hidden away in the caves of Qumran, a site on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Eleven such caves were found in the 1940s and 50s, yielding a total of some 1400 documents, scattered across 100,000 fragments.

No such discovery has been made since then, so the new cave found by researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is significant.

“This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea scrolls in 60 years,” says team leader Oren Gutfeld. “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.”

Fragments of jars that would have contained the scrolls.

Unfortunately, it looks like Cave 12 was thoroughly looted. The team did find a piece of blank parchment, but no actual manuscripts. There were also plenty of smashed up scroll storage jars.

“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," explains Gutfeld.

These pieces of cloth would have been wrapped around the missing scrolls.

The archaeologists also discovered two iron axe heads from the mid-20th century—these suggest the cave was looted in the 50s by Beduins, the nomadic people of this region. In fact, it was a Beduin shepherd who stumbled upon the first seven scrolls in a cave near Qumran. News of this finding led archaeologists to the site in the Judaean Desert, but once the significance of the manuscripts was recognised, they became a prized commodity.

"I imagine they came into the tunnel. They found the scroll jars. They took the scrolls," Gutfeld told BBC News. "They even opened the scrolls and left everything around, the textiles, the pottery."

Scholars speculate that some of the looted scrolls from Cave 12 could have reached antiquities markets at the time, and may have already been included in the Dead Sea Scrolls catalogue.

Archaeologists had to filter countless rocks recovered from the cave in order to find any historical items.

The archaeologists are yet to complete their analysis of their excavation and publish a peer-reviewed study of the findings. However, the discovery does highlight the fact the Qumran area might house even more surprises.

"The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judean Desert,” says Israel Hasson from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“Finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered.”

Header image: The team found a piece of blank parchment, processed for writing. PHOTO BY CASEY L. OLSON AND OREN GUTFELD

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