The Dead Sea has fascinated and drawn inquiring minds for thousands of years. The mysterious landscapes, the vitality-imparting salts, and the extraordinary hypersaline waters are natural features that are found in very few places in the world. As mysterious as the nature of the area, the ancient people who have been inspired by this place have left their own mark on history, including the elusive occupants of Qumran.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
We have all heard of them, but what are the Dead Sea Scrolls? In short, they are among the most significant archaeological finds of the last century. In 1947 Bedouin shepherds discovered a cave with a collection of ancient scrolls. Over the next few years, archaeologists discovered hundreds more texts in a complex of eleven caves.
The scrolls contain early biblical texts, but also many previously unknown works about the life of a religious community over a 300-400 year period immediately before the rise of Christianity. Most scholars believe that they are the work of a purist Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Whoever wrote them, they have revealed more about the nature of Jewish life and religion, in this formative era of the nation’s history, than we could otherwise have known.
Are There Any More Scrolls?
No new scrolls have been discovered since the mid-1950s, but over the last few years the Israeli authorities have become aware of an increased flow of parchments onto the black market—most are fakes but some appear to be genuine. Recently the Israel Antiquities Authority launched “Operation Scroll,” an intensive effort to survey all the possible caves of the Qumran area and to find any further scrolls that may be concealed.
A Major New Find
In February 2017 the IAA announced that a new cave had been discovered, which was almost certainly another ancient storage site for scrolls. In a tunnel 50 feet from the cave’s entrance, the archaeologists found a number of broken clay jars, similar to those used in the other caves to store the scrolls, along with cloth and leather ties. Unfortunately, they also discovered two pickaxes dating to the 1950s, which indicate that the cave was probably looted long ago by robbers.
A Major Disappointment?
Archaeologists are not thrown by the fact that the cave has been looted. Apart from the fact that it shows that more caves might exist and that therefore the search is worth continuing, the finds in the new cave are valuable in themselves.
Especially important is the discovery, for the first time, of blank parchment, which gives evidence that the scrolls were being produced locally and will also help to identify forgeries more easily if bogus texts are being written on looted original blank pieces.
An Ongoing Quest
One of the attractions of the past is that it reveals its secrets slowly and there is always more to find. Recent discoveries near the Red Sea are an encouragement to keep working to unlock the riddles of this most significant period in the world’s history.