Archaeologists search for the last Dead Sea Scrolls in the Cave of the Skulls
The Israel Antiquities Authority have initiated comprehensive archaeological excavations in the Judean Desert caves, in order to find the last Dead Sea Scrolls, which are among the earliest texts written in the Hebrew language.
The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Heritage Project have initiated excavations in the Judean Desert Caves to save the scrolls from being robbed.
“For years now our most important heritage and cultural assets have been excavated illicitly and plundered in the Judean Desert caves for reasons of greed. The goal of the national plan that we are advancing is to excavate and find all of the scrolls that remain in the caves, once and for all, so that they will be rescued and preserved by the state”, said Israel Hasson director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The Cave of Skulls, where the excavation is taking place, is located about 80 meters from the top of the cliff, and c. 250 m above the base of the wadi.
Because of the difficulty in reaching the site, the Israel Antiquities Authority obtained a special permit from the Nature and Parks Authority to construct an access trail, which requires the use of rappelling equipment for the safety of the participants in the excavation.
An official at the Cave of Skulls (photo credit: courtesy IAA)
More than 500 volunteers and field personnel from Israel and abroad were required for the undertaking, and they are sleeping and living in a camp in desert field conditions.
The current excavation season will end in another two weeks, assuming this will be sufficient time in order to extract the valuable archaeological information from the cave.
“The excavation in Na hal Tse’elim is an operation of extraordinary complexity and scope, and one that has not occurred in the Judean Desert in the past thirty years. Despite the rigorous enforcement actions taken against the antiquities robbers, we still witness acts of severe plundering that unfortunately are possible in such large desert expanses. There are hundreds of caves in cliffs in the area, access to which is both dangerous and challenging. In almost every cave that we examined we found evidence of illicit intervention and it is simply heart-breaking. The loss of the finds is irreversible damage that cannot be tolerated”, said Amir Ganor of the IAA´s unit for prevention of Antiquities robbery.
Qumran cave 4 in the Judean Desert, where ninety percent of the scrolls were found (public domain)
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls
Over 50 years ago, a stone thrown by a Bedouin shepherd into a cave led to what some have called the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The Bedouin heard the stone crack open an earthenware jar. Upon investigating, he found the first of what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Two examples of the pottery that held some of the Dead Sea Scrolls documents found at Qumran. (public domain)
When all the scrolls and fragments were sorted out, they accounted for about 800 manuscripts. About one quarter, or just over 200 manuscripts, are copies of portions of the Hebrew Bible text. Additional manuscripts represent ancient non-Biblical Jewish writings, both Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
Some of the scrolls that most excited scholars were previously unknown writings. These include interpretations on matters of Jewish law, specific rules for the community of the sect that lived in Qumran, liturgical poems and prayers, as well as eschatological works that reveal views about the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and the last days. There are also unique Bible commentaries, the most ancient antecedents of modern running commentary on Bible texts.
A fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection known as the Damascus document (public domain)
Now efforts are being made to rescue the remainder of the scrolls hidden for more then two thousand years in the Judean desert caves.
"It is exciting to see the extraordinary work of the volunteers, who have lent a hand and participated in the excavation in complicated field conditions, out of a desire to join in an historic undertaking and discover finds that can provide priceless information about our past here. The time has come for the state to underwrite broad action so as to rescue the cultural assets of enormous historical importance while they still remain in the caves. Substantial amounts need to be allocated which will allow the Israel Antiquities Authority to embark upon a large scale operation for studying the desert, including the caves, and excavating the artifacts. After all, the Dead Sea scrolls are of religious, political and historical importance to Jews, Christians and all of humanity”, Hasson concluded.
Volunteers at work in the archaeological excavation. Photographic credit: Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Top Image: Two scrolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls lie at their location in the Qumran Caves before being removed for scholarly examination by archaeologists. (public domain)
By Sam Bostrom